Starr Carter has two lives. She lives one with her family in Garden Heights, a mostly black neighborhood where neighbors take care of each other, small locally owned businesses provide hope, and gang violence affects everyone’s lives no matter how hard they try to avoid it. She lives the other in her mostly white school, Williamson Prep, where she is careful to keep her speech slang-free and never gets emotional because she doesn’t want to be known as “the angry black girl.” She has friends in each world, but they never mix, and she prefers to keep it that way.
Over spring break, Starr attends a Garden Heights party at the insistence of her friend, Kenya. She feels out of place, a girl in a hoodie and ponytail surrounded by girls dressed in their sexiest outfits, until she sees her childhood friend Khalil. Once best friends, Starr and Khalil had not even crossed paths in months, but they catch up quickly. When gunshots go off at the party, Starr and Khalil leave in a hurry, taking his car home. On the way home, Khalil is pulled over for a broken taillight. Pulled out of the car by an aggressive cop, Khalil is treated like a criminal, and when he opens the door to ask Starr if she is all right, the cop assumes Khalil is reaching for a gun and shoots him in the back, killing him.
After Khalil’s murder, Starr tries to keep a low profile, not wanting to known as the witness in her community or in her school, and she does not know how to speak about the murder to her own friends in either world. She cooperates with the police in the investigation, but quickly realizes they are not interested in investigating the cop but in investigating Khalil and Starr and finding out if Khalil had a criminal history and if either teen had been drinking that night. Soon, Starr is no longer able to keep quiet, learning that she can only honor Khalil’s life by becoming his voice.
The Hate U Give (or THUG) is a heavily hyped book right now, and with any book that is receiving an unusual amount of attention, the first question is always, “Is it worth the hype?” The answer for this is a definite yes. The first 100 pages don’t move as quickly as the rest, but once you are a quarter into the book, it is very difficult to put down. For me, the primary appeal was that I fell in love with the characters. Not only has Ms. Thomas created well developed main characters, but even the supporting characters are worth rooting for, from Starr’s neighborhood friend, Kenya, to the grumpy barbershop owner, Mr. Lewis. My favorite character may have been Starr’s father, Maverick, a wonderfully complicated man.
Another thing I appreciated about this book is that it feels universal, or at least national. We are never told exactly where Starr lives, but I think this could take place anywhere in the U.S. The images in my head were that of my hometown of Saginaw, a heavily segregated Michigan city that is quite similar to Flint or Detroit. I highly doubt that Ms. Thomas, a Mississippi resident, had Saginaw, Michigan in her mind when she wrote this, but it’s to her credit that you can take this story and move it into your own world and it will feel true.
THUG does not simplify the issue of police violence in black neighborhoods. Starr’s uncle is a police officer and a colleague of the officer who killed Khalil, and Uncle Carlos is definitely a positive part of Starr’s life. Also, Khalil has a past. If he had been presented as 4.0 student who never got into trouble a day in this life, this novel might have been didactic with a simple message. But with Khalil presented as a good person who has not always been on the right side of the law, there are more questions that a reader has to work through. Questions about the assumptions we make about victims of police violence, wanting to make angels or demons of them, and questions about whether a white teen with the exact same history as Khalil could have ever found himself in the same situation.
I do strongly recommend The Hate U Give, and I am going to pass this onto my stepdaughters because that is what I do with the YA novels that I love.
FCC Notice: I bought my own copy.