There’s just so much I want to say about this book, I know I’m leaving stuff out even as I prepare to hit “Publish.” Also, I know that I’m not doing justice to how good this book is. Given that, here’s my best shot.
I’ll be honest, the hype around this one turned me off initially. It just didn’t seem like my kind of thing. But my wife bought a copy and tore through it and started telling everyone she came across that they needed to read it (especially those of us she lives with). When I saw the library had a copy of the audiobook, I snagged it, because I hadn’t got that far on my TBR. By this time, I only remembered “YA,” “something about Black Lives Matter,” and “Mrs. Irresponsible Reader said I needed to.” Which is about as tabula rasa as one could get when coming to a book.
Our central character is Starr Carter. She attends a very nice private school in the suburbs of whatever unidentified city she lives in. She plays basketball there, has friends and a boyfriend and seems to be generally well-regarded by all. Then there’s her “other life”, that has almost no relation to that one — she and her family live in a poor neighborhood where almost no one knows her by anything but “Mav’s daughter what works at the store” (or something close to that). She has a friend or two in the neighborhood, but mostly works and then goes home. On one of the rare nights she goes out to do something social, she runs into her childhood best friend, Khalil, who she hasn’t seen for a few months. Their reunion is cut short, sadly, while he drives her home and they’re pulled over by a police officer for a routine traffic stop. I’ll leave the details for you to read on your own, but essentially, her unarmed friend is shot repeatedly by the police officer in front of Starr.
In the days that follow Khalil’s death is a nationwide story, Starr’s being questioned by the police and is trying to keep her psyche intact while the wheels of justice grind slowly. There are problems at school, unforeseen challenges at home and in the neighborhood, add in the involvement with the criminal justice system and activists, and it’s clear that neither of Starr’s lives are going to be the same again.
Yes, this book is about the shooting of Khalil and the aftermath. But it’s about more than that, too. Similar to the way you could say that To Kill a Mockingbird is about the trial Tom Robinson and its aftermath. There’s a whole lot of other things going on in both books that are just as much a part of the essence as the shooting/trial. There’s family growth and change, individual characters learning more about the world and changing, there’s the evolution of localities and best of all, there are characters taking all of this in and exercising a little agency to change themselves — and impact everything in around them.
One thing I didn’t expect was how fun this book would end up being. I laughed a lot — her father’s strange theories about Harry Potter, her Fresh Prince of Bel Air obsession, the teasing between her friends, her family’s very cut-throat approach to watching the NBA finals and trying to jinx each other’s teams, are just a start. Even when it’s not being out-and-out funny, there’s a joie de vivre that characterizes the lives of these characters.
When they’re not grieving, being threatened (by criminals or those who are supposed to be protecting them from criminals), being angered at the way that the system seems to be destined to fail them, or scared about their lives, that is. Because there’s a lot of that, too. All of which is justified. The interplay between the emotional extremes speaks volumes to the authenticity of Thomas’ work, and makes it much more effective than it could’ve been in less careful hands.
There are so few YA novels with healthy — or existing families — that Thomas should probably win an award or three just for having so many in one book. None of the families are perfect (though Starr’s comes close), some push the boundaries of “dysfunctional” into something we need a new word for; but at the very least there were at least a core of people caring about each other and trying to help each other, in their own way.
Yes, there are political overtones — or at least ramifications — to this book, but this is first and foremost a human story and can be appreciated by humans from all over the political spectrum. Thomas, as far as I can tell, went out of her way to be fair and balanced. It’d have been very easy to paint some of these characters/groups as all evil, all good, all misunderstood, all [fill in the blank]. Instead, she took the more difficult, more honest, and much more interesting approach and filled the book with people all over the moral spectrum, no matter their profession, ethnicity, socio-economic background, education, etc.
A few words about Turpin’s work. I loved it. She was just fantastic, and rose to the challenge of bringing this kind of book to life. Looking at her credits just now, that doesn’t seem like much of a stretch for her — she’s clearly a talented heavy-hitter on the audiobook front.
I laughed, I cried . . . it moved me. This is the whole package, really. It’ll challenge you, it’ll entertain you, and give you a little hope for tomorrow (while helping you despair about the time until tomorrow comes).