Angie Thomas’s excellent novel The Hate You Give came my way, as many good YA novels do, via a recommendation from my teenaged daughter. It’s a story about a sixteen-year-old African-American girl who is in the car with a boy — her best friend from childhood — when he is pulled over and shot by a white police officer in a traffic stop gone horribly wrong. As the only witness to Khalil’s death, Starr finds herself pulled into the centre of controversy and activism in her community.
Like many teenage protagonists in fiction, Starr is a bit of an outsider: she doesn’t entirely fit in with the white kids at her private school, though she has friends and a boyfriend there; she also no longer fully fits in with her childhood friends and extended family in her lower-income neighbourhood, simply because her parents have made it possible for her to attend private school. (This dynamic reminded me a little of the narrator in Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian).
Starr is a vibrant, believable young woman whose fears and hopes are easy for the reader to identify with. It’s always hard, as a reader, to tell whether a writer is capturing a subculture accurately when it’s not your own subculture, but this certainly feels, to Old White-Lady me, like an authentic glimpse into the life of a black teenager in an American city right now. The language and pop-culture references are so contemporary that they will date the novel in a few years, but that’s not a bad thing: this is a novel very much of its specific time and place. It’s rooted in 2016-2017 America and the Black Lives Matter movement; this is the specific cultural moment that produced this story. This is particularly evident at the end of the novel when Starr, having finally spoken out publicly about Khalil’s death, says:
“It’s about way more than [Khalil] though….
It’s also about Oscar.
I was reading this book on the same day the verdict was handed down in the Philando Castile case, finding the officer who killed him not guilty despite the horrifying video evidence. For the record, the list above, where Thomas integrates her fictional character into a list of real victims, was the exact spot where I started crying while reading The Hate U Give.
We’re long past the era (if we were ever really in it; I’m not sure) when readers can assume that a subject is treated with less complexity because the novel is targeted at teenaged readers. This YA novel delves deep into the gray areas around the black-and-white issue of young African-American men dying at the hands of police. Starr faces the covert racism of her white classmates who think they’re being progressive by organizing a day of protest over Khalil’s murder; she faces the real and constant threats of gang violence and drug abuse within her own community. Her uncle, a black police officer, is at once sympathetic to the stresses faced by his colleagues, and outraged by what one of them did to Khalil. Issues that, for many of us, are only theoretical because they are so removed from the communities where we live, take on human faces here. Like every great novel, The Hate U Give is not really about “issues” even when it is — it’s about people. Novels resonate because their characters feel like people we know, or can know. Starr brings us into her world, and into the horrible experience she has lived through, and readers are richer for making this journey with her.