This is a remarkable book that lives up to the hype surrounding it. Most of you will probably already know of this book, so you’ll know it’s about a black girl whose unarmed, black male friend gets shot by a white cop in front of her. Obviously a topical subject, but the book really delivers a great fiction experience all while introducing readers to a world they probably don’t know at all, as well as an inside perspective on what black people regularly face. I love reading books set in places or cultures I have little to no exposure to, even though it’s uncomfortable at times, and that was all true for this book.
Starr Carter’s a great character, complex and just flawed enough to be deeply interesting. She’s a pretty normal sixteen-year-old girl, except that she attends a private school named Williamson while living in a neighborhood plagued with violence and drugs. Gang life is all around her, except when she’s at school or tucked safely in her home. Her mom is a nurse and her dad runs the local grocery store, making them a little different from many of their neighbors, even though her dad does have a history with the local gang. Not surprisingly, Starr thinks of the school Starr as distinct from the home Starr. Navigating those two identities is complicated. As she says:
Williamson Starr doesn’t use slang—if a rapper would say it, she doesn’t say it, even if her white friends do.
And when her boyfriend is visiting her family so her worlds are colliding:
I can use some slang, but not too much slang, some attitude, but not too much attitude, so I’m not a “sassy black girl.” I have to watch what I say and how I say it, but I can’t sound “white.”
This is typical of that frustrating pattern where people of a power-compromised group are held to a different standard (and it’s not just minorities—women face that in the corporate world, too).
At school, her best friends are a white girl named Hailey and an (east) Asian girl named Maya. And her boyfriend is white, too. They bond over basketball, which they all play (with skill).
Starr manages her two lives pretty well, even though there are cracks in her relationships already showing at the beginning. Hailey unfollowed her on Instagram, which Starr knows is because of posts she’s put up related to mistreatment of blacks over the decades. And although we don’t know what it is for a little while, something happened with her boyfriend that pissed her off (before the book starts).
Starr’s family is also complicated, but her relationships with both her parents are solid. It’s also a source of some of the humor in the book. An exchange between Starr and her mom:
[Her mom:] “What is Tumblr anyway? Is it like Facebook?”
“No, and you’re forbidden to get one. No parents allowed. You guys already took over Facebook.”
“You haven’t responded to my friend request yet.”
“I need Candy Crush lives.”
“That’s why I’ll never respond.”
It’s not the only funny thing in the book by far.
Hailey is an interesting, if unlikeable, character. Starr’s been friends with her for many years. The two bonded when Starr first started at the private school because they both had just been through the trauma of losing someone (Hailey’s mom had died and Starr had just witnessed one of her good friends murdered in a drive-by shooting while they were playing outside). Still, Hailey’s very much a White Girl. I first heard that as a capital-letter-term in reference to someone I know, and I knew what it meant—she’s very entitled and all her problems are very much first-world problems. Hailey, like so many white kids now, thinks of herself as enlightened and probably post-racial. But the problem is, she is still looking at things through her very privileged eyes. Eventually that causes some big problems with Starr.
As I mentioned, this book will introduce many readers to a setting they probably have little experience with. The neighborhood is very real. And we see it through Starr’s eyes—both through school Starr’s perspective and home Starr’s perspective. School Starr finds it embarrassing, but home Starr gets it. She doesn’t like everything about it, but she understands how it works, how to navigate that world, and how she has to deal with the important players. The dialogue in the book is natural and flowing, as well as very up-to-date and realistic (I’m assuming—there were quite a few slang words whose meaning I didn’t know, and which I would certainly never use even if I “learned” the meaning).
One of my favorite lines in the book, probably because it perfectly sums everything up, comes just after Starr has been through the initial interview with the detectives investigating the shooting she witnessed. It’s clear the detectives have an agenda and it isn’t the right one. She says:
This is gonna be some bullshit.
Anyway, I’m glad they’re making a movie out of it and I look forward to more books from Thomas.