Starr alternates between the predominantly Caucasian school where she learns and the poor black neighbourhood where she lives. By the age of sixteen, she’s seen two of her friends shot and killed in front of her.
On a very warm Sunday morning, I was 33 pages into this book. I’d finished its 400+ pages by that evening. It’s a story that grabs hold of you and screams that you listen and more importantly, that you listen well.
It is the 21st century, right? I’m just checking, because the neighbourhood Starr lives in doesn’t seem to think so. The predominantly minority population feels itself as oppressed as 19th century slaves, and who can blame them? They take care of themselves, because it seems the rest of the city where they live won’t. Law is enforced by neighbours working together and gang members patrolling the streets.
The people who should be protecting them – the police – are distant and disinterested and just as likely to shoot them as a random drive by killer. (There’s also a wider debate here, I thought, about arming police officers. If the police officer had a Taser, we’d having a twitching teenager, not a dead one).
You get a feel for the world Starr lives in within a few pages of the book starting. She’s at a party when there’s the sound of gunshots. She doesn’t wonder what the noise is; she doesn’t stop to investigate. She and everyone else runs for their life. In those few paragraphs, you see what life is like for Starr and her friends. How used to it they are, how much they expect it. There’s a tragedy here, growing up so hard and fast in a place where you should feel safe. Starr is able to identify a handgun without any hesitation at the age of sixteen.
This is a story of living between narrow spaces. The neighbourhood exists between being labelled a ghetto and gang wars. Starr walks the space between her Caucasian friends and her black family, of wanting to stay silent and be safe or speak up and be a target. Her father walks the space between wanting to help the neighbourhood and making a better life for his kids.
There are walls here as well. One that jumped out at me was late in the story: Starr’s white boyfriend is putting up with some good natured jokes from her black friends. But when he wants to ask a question about black life, a wall immediately goes up for a paragraph or two. You can feel the here comes the racism vibe without it being spoken. But how else are we to learn if we don’t ask questions?
Starr also puts up walls between herself and her boyfriend and school friends. She walks differently, talks differently and behaves differently around them. The only way the black girl feels as though she can be accepted is if she doesn’t act black.
I’m five hundred words into this review and I haven’t got to the best part of the story yet. Starr’s extended family is absolutely awesome. You know they would kill for each other and die for each other without hesitation. No matter what happens, the family is the strongest and most enduring thing, the spine the book is built on.
I want to sit in their kitchen and listen to them argue and love each other and hate each other and all the other things good families are supposed to do. And I want some of that red velvet cake.
And you know that love and support stretches out across the street and the neighbourhood and is reflected and magnified back to them. Starr lives in a ghetto, but that doesn’t mean the ghetto isn’t a family and a strength that she knows is there for her and everyone else.
Everyone in the story is so well developed, I read most of this book in terror that some of them wouldn’t make it out alive. I was expecting gunshots and screeching tires every page. I got a glimpse of how Starr must live all the time, and my respect for her and her family and neighbours went up to eleven.
I have a few minor gripes, but they are very minor: The subplot with Mav and the Kings seemed to wrap up too quickly and neatly, and there seemed to be some author intrusions, especially in the above quoted example of Chris asking a question. But damn. This is Angie Thomas’s first book. There’s a humour and warmth and characterisation here of a twenty year veteran.
Consider me a fan.