By Angie Thomas
Balzer + Bray Publishing, ISBN: 978-0062498533
Hardcover, 464 pages. ©2017
16-year-old Starr Carter lives in Garden Heights, a poor black neighborhood where gangs run the streets and drugs are ubiquitous. Between her mother’s job as a nurse and her father’s community grocery store in the Heights, Starr’s parents manage to send her and her young brother to a good school, a private one that’s safe and filled almost exclusively with rich white kids. Starr walks a delicate line between the two worlds, creating a separate “Starr” for each—“Williamson Starr,” who’s no one’s typical ghetto black girl, and “Garden Heights Starr” who wears attitude like armor—so that she might fit into both without alienating anyone.
But the fragile boundary between the two comes crashing down on the way home from a party when childhood friend Khalil is shot and killed by a white police officer on a routine traffic stop. Starr watches, horrified, as Khalil bleeds out before her eyes and the policeman’s gun turns on her. As the only witness, Starr finds herself faced with an unwelcome choice: stay quiet, stay safe, and accept that some things will never change; or speak up, risk frightening consequences, and hope they will.
This multiple award-winning book captivated me from the very first page. Author Angie Thomas dragged me in with Starr at a party she should never have attended, and kept me riveted right through to the list of names at the end. I couldn’t put it down, and read the entire thing in an afternoon. The shock of Khalil’s murder wasn’t the only moment that had me in tears. But Hate isn’t just about tragedy. It’s also about family. Scenes with Starr’s family had me laughing out loud in some places and chewing a knuckle in others. It’s about community. While the reader has the impression Starr’s city is large, Garden Heights has a small-town feel where characters all know and, for the most part, look out for one another. It’s about faith. Starr’s father prays to Black Jesus on a regular basis, even when Starr’s mother interrupts his prayer to argue. It’s about the vast grey area of right vs. wrong. Starr not only struggles with recognizing the right thing to do, but comes to realize that her own assumptions about others based on outside observations are not always correct and that learning the truth changes one’s perspective entirely.
There are so many threads in this story it’s difficult to know which ones to highlight. Perhaps the most obvious is that of racism and the weight of responsibility for the violence that occurs in poor black neighborhoods. While Khalil’s death is the direct result of an officer-involved shooting, and tensions between the police and black residents of Garden Heights is certainly central to the plot, Thomas carefully avoids assigning blame. Instead, she crafts a masterful tapestry of settings and circumstances that helped me see there is more than one side to any story. She never implies that all police officers are racist. She does clearly illustrate the fact that racist assumptions lead to misunderstandings, which lead to fear, which leads to senseless deaths. There must be a better way.
The concept of one’s voice as a defensive weapon is common theme in Hate. Throughout the story, various characters confront the risk of “snitching” on gang members, calling out friends or family members for unacceptable behavior, standing up to those who would perpetrate abuse. But sometimes, being brave comes at a price. Several characters pay that piper, and learn the hard way that speaking the truth when one’s voice is shaking takes courage.
Starr’s own journey throughout the story follows the classic young-adult theme of evolving out of a place of insecurity into one of strength. Yet in this setting, given these circumstances, her transition feels relevant to any reader, of any age. The connection between Starr and the police shooting that not only kills her best friend but ultimately turns her community upside down makes this story timely in the extreme. I cannot personally relate to living in Garden Heights, dealing with gang violence, or having my dad give me explicit instructions on how to improve my chances of survival if the police ever stop me. Yet Thomas weaves this story so beautifully I could experience these things vicariously through Starr. The Hate U Give opened my eyes to the challenges of that reality in a new way, and I am forever changed.
Despite the ray of hope that shines through Hate, Thomas didn’t wrap up every loose thread. Real life isn’t neat and tidy, and I liked that the story had that kind of feel to it. Poor black neighborhoods aren’t going away any time soon. Nor is gang violence or officer-involved shootings. Nor, sad to say, is racism. Still, the book ends on a positive note with the people of Garden Heights—and others besides—working to effect meaningful change, both in the Heights and in themselves.
Starr’s story is not only relevant. It is essential. I highly recommend it for everyone, especially people like me who (before reading the book) couldn’t begin to relate to Starr’s life because we’d never been exposed to it. At the very least, The Hate U Give should be required reading in schools because empathy and compassion should be taught early and often.