The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas is a very important book. I am not a skilled or brave enough writer to convey here my experience of this book as a middle class white woman, but I can tell you that this book made me think, really, deeply think about race, class and prejudice in America and it made me question my way of thinking, my lack of thinking, my lack of understanding. It made me check my privilege, something I thought, working at a school with a student population that is 90% minority and socioeconomically disadvantaged, I had already done. For a much better written, more informed review, read Anna Diamond's piece in The Atlantic. I listened to the audio version of The Hate U Give, which was read by the superlative Bahni Turpin, member of the Cornerstone Theater Company in Los Angeles and narrator of some of my favorite books. Her range of voices is equal to or beyond to that of Jim Dale, narrator of the Harry Potter series.
Extraordinary and ordinary is how you might describe the life of narrator Starr Carter. Starr code switches between the two very different worlds of Garden Heights, where she lives with her parents and brothers, and Williamson Prep, the private high school she and her brothers attend in the suburban, gated neighborhood where her uncle, a detective, and his wife, a surgeon live. Her father, a former gang member, owns a grocery store and wants to make Garden Heights a better place. Her mother, a nurse, works at a clinic in the neighborhood and wants to move to keep her kids safe. Connections and complexities, bad choices or no choices, run deep in the Carter family. There are two Starrs, the Williamson Starr and the Garden Heights Starr, and managing and balancing the two is a challenge, increasingly so after Starr is the sole witness of the fatal shooting of her childhood friend, Khalil, by a white police officer.
Thomas masterfully layers in plotline upon plotline without ever losing or diminishing the power of Starr's story. The title of the book comes from Tupac Shakur's philosophy of THUG LIFE which, as Khalil explains to Starr shortly before he is killed, is an acronym for, "The Hate U Give Little Infants F**ks Everybody," and it is returned to a few times over the course of the story. The way Khalil explains it, THUG LIFE is an indictment of the systemic inequality and hostility in America. The Hate U Give illustrates the realities and complexities of this over and over. Khalil has started selling drugs because his mother, a drug addict, stole money from the local drug lord and he is trying to pay it back. A group text from a student at Williamson Prep rallies students to protest the shooting of Khalil as a way to get out of class. Starr's boyfriend is white, but she keeps him a secret from her father who flips out anytime he sees a black person dating a white person. Starr's friend Haley makes comments about Starr and fried chicken and their Asian friend, Maya, eating dog for Thanksgiving, but doesn't see them as racist because they are jokes. And Haley stops following Starr's tumblr when she feels there are too many pictures of Emmet Till and Black Lives Matter stuff. The media presents one perspective after the shooting, that of the white policeman and his family, while making assumptions about Khalil and his family, putting the deceased on trial publicly, not the killer. Over and over again, race complicates Starr's life and over and over she has to make difficult decisions.
In the end, Thomas gives hope to Starr and her family, a way to balance the worlds of Garden Heights and Williamson Prep. As a lover of fiction, I like a happy(ish) ending. I know this sounds cynical and I truly don't mean it to be so, but a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. In an interview, Thomas explained that she wanted to appeal to a broad range of readers, saying, "'Young adult' is a critical age and I knew that if I showed Starr going through these types of things, I could provide a mirror for some young adults and a window for adults - a lot of [whom] read young adult books - who might bring open hearts to a story that I told from her perspective, when they might normally look at a topic like this and say, 'No.'" I am definitely the adult Thomas was speaking of and the voice she created with Starr did open my heart. I listened to Bahni Turpin read this book over the course of a work week, alone in my library, weeding books, putting new books in the system, cleaning up. I'm ashamed to say it, but I don't know if I would have had the fortitude to keep my butt in the chair if I was reading this powerful, upsetting, challenging, complicated, vitally important, necessary story. I am grateful to Angie Thomas for creating Starr and telling her story in a way that I could hear and for writing a novel I will think about often and putting ideas in my face that I need to understand more deeply and act on.
SOURCE: PURCHASED AUDIO BOOK