Book Review: Dear Martin by Nic Stone

Justyce is top of his class, captain of the debate team, and set for the Ivy League next year—but none of that matters to the police officer who just put him in handcuffs. He is eventually released without charges (or an apology), but the incident has left Justyce contemplative and on edge. Despite leaving his rough neighborhood, he can’t seem to escape the scorn of his former peers or the attitude of his prep school classmates. The only exception: Sarah Jane, Justyce’s gorgeous—and white—debate partner he wishes he didn’t have a thing for.

Struggling to cope with it all, Justyce starts a journal to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but do Dr. King’s teachings hold up in the modern world? Justyce isn’t so sure.

Then comes the day Justyce goes driving with his best friend, Manny, windows rolled down, music turned up (way up), much to the fury of the white off-duty cop beside them. Words fly. Shots are fired. And Justyce and Manny get caught in the crosshairs. In the media fallout, it’s Justyce who is under attack.

Dear Martin has quickly been labeled a must read book for 2017 and overall I agree with that conclusion. Let’s get something out of the way though: the biggest disadvantage this book faces is that it was published in the same year as The Hate U Give (THUG). The authors are friends and the books deal with similar subject matter, so comparisons are inevitable. Readers of THUG will notice several points of overlap: Black protagonists who attend private schools, are in interracial relationships, live/grew up in a high crime area, witness a police involved shooting, have a prejudiced parent, have a “friend” who doesn’t understand the complexities of White privilege, etc.

To be clear, addressing issues of racism and police brutality in fiction is incredibly important and the more novels which deal with the subject, the better.

Dear Martin is designed to meet a need for modern readers, giving an insightful and in depth look at what it’s like to be a Black man in America in 2017, and it doesn’t hold back. The book packs a powerful emotional impact. My heart raced, I cried, and, above all, I got angry. Invoking such emotions in a reader is no small feat.

For me, the parts of the book which provoked the most intense reactions were the depictions of Justyce in the media after he is shot by the off-duty cop. It’s heartbreaking to see the ways in which he has to navigate life after news reports insinuate he is a criminal rather than a victim. Stone’s commentary on how media narratives contribute to racism and influence our perceptions of victims resonates in part because it is easy to recognize the real world stories which inspired her writing. It’s timely, relevant material for young readers who may be struggling to understand why stories about police shootings and media depictions matter.

While the book portrays the struggles of Black Americans, it does so by contrasting their lives with the White Americans with whom they interact. For readers who have never considered how racism continues to impact the Black community this can serve as an introduction to those realities. However, I felt some characters were there to check boxes; Blake, the unrepentant and clueless racist; Jared, the White dude whose racial views drastically evolve throughout the book; Melo, the on-again/off-again girlfriend whose actions lead to Justyce’s first police encounter. Nevertheless, they serve the purposes of the narrative well and I never felt like they were out of place (except Melo, who basically disappears from the book at some point, and I did not miss her).

The book also touches on the ways that limited exposure and negative interactions between people can create stereotypes and prejudices as many of the characters have no experience with the Black community beyond their encounters with Justyce, Manny, and the few other Black students at Braselton Prep. They deal in stereotypes or use their classmates as “evidence” that systemic racism does not exist. Stone’s work extends this discussion of discrimination as she touches on anti-Semitism through the character of Sarah Jane. At multiple times in the book when she is referred to as White it’s followed by a reminder that she is Jewish. While this does not mean she experiences the same disadvantages as Justyce, it is a friendly reminder to readers that prejudice takes many forms. Unfortunately, this is actually a way in which the book fails for me. Obviously Justyce’s story and life extend beyond his mistreatment by the police, but a significant portion of the book focuses on the fact that Justyce’s mother doesn’t want him dating White girls. Unfamiliar readers can project onto this, and it could feed into a narrative of “reverse racism” (which doesn’t exist, by the way).

Additionally, Stone’s premise of having Justyce engage with the work of Martin Luther King Jr. was intriguing to me. Quite often in narratives surrounding modern protest, dissenting voices like to argue that “this is not what Dr. King would do,” and Stone’s work is directly engaging with that flawed argument (flawed because those critiques ignore the true experience of MLK in the 1960s and turn him into a convenience). Justyce’s attempts reflect this complexity as well as the problem of applying philosophical frameworks in an effective way. His struggle, and at times abandonment, of being “like Martin” helps demonstrate that communities and movements cannot be distilled into one voice. I was a bit confused though because from the promotional materials, summaries, and title, I assumed that much of the book would center around Justyce’s journal addressed to King, but the book is not epistolary and the letters are so few and brief that they are largely extraneous to the plot, which is a shame because they are beautiful. We see Justyce develop and grapple with societal questions clearly in those moments because they are written in first, rather than third, person.

As a side note to that, I had two main critiques of the work itself. I wasn’t always happy with Stone’s use of point of view which was predominantly third person limited. At times it read as stage directions or a script, which worked well for the conversations but made larger scenes and time jumps seem stilted. I also did not like the opening of the book. It’s a move I’ve seen more and more (including in THUG) but opening with an incredibly dramatic scene (Jus’s unlawful detention) does not work for me. I objectively understand: my empathy for victims of injustice should not require an emotional connection to the person, but I find it jarring. It took me until around Chapter 5-6 to finally connect with the characters and engage with them as rounded figures. Those early chapters felt like reading a play built out of stock characters and part of that was down to the recoil I felt from the opening.

There are other things I could discuss in this review. The depictions of successful Black men (Manny’s father (a businessman) and Doc (a teacher)), the humanization of gang members and the incarcerated, and on and on. For a short book, it manages to contain a multitude. However, I think the main thing to take away from this book is that it adds to the conversation by giving readers an opportunity to learn, reflect, and engage with a narrative that many have seen played out on TV but haven’t really thought about or considered from the perspective of those living these experiences. While it isn’t perfect, for me this was a four bard tale, without question.

Book Review: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

 

Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend, Khalil, at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.

Soon afterward, Khalil’s death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Starr’s best friend at school suggests he may have had it coming. When it becomes clear the police have little interest in investigating the incident, protesters take to the streets and Starr’s neighborhood becomes a war zone. What everyone wants to know is: What really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.

But what Starr does—or does not—say could destroy her community. It could also endanger her life.

Whenever I start hearing some buzz about a new YA novel I tend to be intrigued but skeptical. In the case of The Hate U Give this was emphasized by the fact that every review I saw trickle in seemed to open with “Believe the hype!” But I started listening to the audio version because the book’s premise seemed timely and I was hoping beyond hope that the book could live up to the talk surrounding it. So…

Believe the hype.

I could not stop listening to this book. I ended up listening to all 11 hours and 40 minutes in roughly 5 days and am already planning to buy copies as gifts and lender copies. It’s that incredible.

While the main plot of the book is the shooting of Khalil, this book manages to be about so much more than police shootings and the protests which many of us are now accustomed to seeing and reading about. It’s hard to think of a way to describe this book other than as a celebration of blackness wrapped up in the all too familiar narrative of a police shooting. It balances depictions of the black community, exposing the realities of life in a low-income neighborhood but embracing the negative and the positive, thereby avoiding stereotypes and creating a narrative which embraces multiple levels of experience. The book also acknowledges and emphasizes a number of black leaders in addition to Martin Luther King Jr. such as Malcolm X and Huey Newton. By including other major figures, the author again shows the diversity of the black community and their actions rather than labeling them as one collective united behind Dr. King.

The main character, Starr, is also used to highlight the disparity between communities. At her predominantly white school, it’s expected that she’ll date the only other black student in her grade. She’s a talented basketball player and has a clear group of friends, but she also has rules. She considers herself an entirely different person at school and to prevent herself from being seen as “ghetto” or as the “Angry Black Woman” doesn’t use slang or create confrontations. The character’s inner conflict as her worlds begin to collide is palpable as she has to make decisions about whether her fellow students are truly her friends or if they are even the “good” people they claim to be. This also plays out in her neighborhood as more people begin to question her motives when she doesn’t speak openly, despite being the only witness. YA is often about finding your identity and Starr’s journey takes her along that familiar path but in the midst of extensive external and internal conflict.

There are so many other amazing things I could talk about: the role of Tupac in the book (he inspired the title), the depictions of a strong family, navigating friendships, nuances of gang life, drug dealers, and drug users. The Hate U Give manages to encompass an incredible number of stories and characters but at no point does this sprawling world feel anything but Real.

That being said, there are a couple of things that I thought could have been improved.

We don’t, as a reader, have a lot of time with Khalil in the present. His death happens early in the book and most of the time we encounter him in the memories of the characters. While the pain and memories are well rendered, if Khalil had been alive for a few more chapters, I think the reader could have formed a better emotional connection to him. I also think that’s sort of the point: we shouldn’t have to have an emotional connection to someone to believe their death is unjustified and horrific.

I’m also not a big fan of Chris, Starr’s boyfriend. He’s not a full blown manic pixie dream boy, which is refreshing, but I found him slightly annoying. Again, that’s fine, I’m not Starr, I don’t have to date him. However, as a character, he plays a major role in the text as a stand in for members of the white community who are willing to learn and become allies, because of this he serves as a direct foil for Hailey (the text’s token white feminist).

Like many other YA books that make a major splash (such as The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian), this book will probably be critiqued for its use of profanity and depictions of sexual encounters (although, for the record, the only sex which occurs in the book is between the adult characters). But Starr’s encounters with Chris and questions about whether she’s ready to have sex also bring a valid voice into the world of YA. She doesn’t romanticize these encounters but, because of her own family’s history with teen pregnancy, is rational and hesitant to embark into situations she may regret. She’s strong and doesn’t allow herself to bow to expectations. And her voice, profanity and all, remains believable.

It’s rare to read a book where even the points which I think fall a bit short also serve such clear narrative purpose.

I haven’t been purposefully vague about any elements of the plot, but the strength of this book is in its reflections of reality, so… the ending won’t surprise you. However, one of the most powerful moments comes in the closing. I played it over and over again:

“Once upon a time there was a hazel-eyed boy with dimples. I called him Khalil. The world called him a thug. He lived, but not nearly long enough, and for the rest of my life I’ll remember how he died. Fairy tale? No. But I’m not giving up on a better ending. It would be easy to quit if it was just about me, Khalil, that night, and that cop. It’s about way more than that though. It’s about Seven, Sekani, Kenya, DeVante. It’s also about Oscar. Aiyana. Trayvon. Rekia. Michael. Eric. Tamir. John. Ezell. Sandra. Freddie. Alton. Philando. It’s even about that little boy in 1955 who nobody recognized at first. Emmett. The messed up part? There are so many more.”

It’s a call to action and remembrance, solidifying the work as, in its own way, a piece of protest and a call for reform.

I cannot recommend this book enough: Five Bards

 

 

Thanks so much to Midsummer contributor Valerie for submitting this review.

 

 

Waiting on Wednesday

waiting on wednesday

Every week Breaking the Spine hosts the bookish meme for book bloggers to share what books they are waiting on to be released!  This week I’m waiting on:

Release Date: February 28, 2017

Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, Angie Thomas’s searing debut about an ordinary girl in extraordinary circumstances addresses issues of racism and police violence with intelligence, heart, and unflinching honesty.

Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.

Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Protesters are taking to the streets in Khalil’s name. Some cops and the local drug lord try to intimidate Starr and her family. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.

But what Starr does—or does not—say could upend her community. It could also endanger her life.

 

 

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