on February 28, 2017
Genres: Young Adult
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.
This was one of the most anticipated books of the year. I preordered it and started reading as soon as it downloaded. It is worth all the hype.
I think a large part of the effectiveness of this novel is the complexity of the characters. No one is a stock character with only one relevant character attribute or motivation. This allows a lot of discussion among the characters on a huge range of topics.
Starr – She is 16 and lives in a neighborhood that she thinks of as the ghetto but she doesn’t want anyone else to call it that. She witness her best friend Natasha get killed in a drive by shooting when they were 10. After that her mother sent her to a private school in a safer neighborhood. She feels like she is living a double life at home and at school. She’s not sure she fits into either place. She has a white boyfriend that she’s too afraid to tell her father about.
Khalil – He grew up with Starr but they don’t talk much any more. His mother is a drug addict. After he is killed, he is described as a drug dealer and a gang member but the truth is harder to come by.
Maverick – He’s Starr’s father. He was a gang member but is out of it now. He was in jail for three years when Starr was young. He owns a grocery store in the neighborhood. He is adamant that they are not going to move to a safer neighborhood because they need to help remake the one they live in. He’s drilled Black Panther quotes into his children to teach them to survive.
Uncle Carlos – He is a policeman who grew up in the neighborhood. He helped raise Maverick’s kids when he was in jail and there is still some tension between them.
Add in Starr’s mom and her brothers and the rest of the extended family in addition to the friends from the neighborhood and her school and this is a rich cast of characters with multiple points of view.
Khalil is driving Starr home from a party when they are pulled over. He is pulled out of the car and then shot while standing beside the car. The police and the officer’s family describe it as a shooting of a thug who was going for a gun. Starr knows there was no gun. Khalil looked into the car to ask if she was ok. Now she’s dealing with the grief and trauma of witnessing his murder.
At first no one knows that she was the witness. She wasn’t named because she is a minor. She is unable to talk about it to her friends at school even though it is a major news story. There is even a walkout supposedly in protest of his killing but mostly was just as an excuse to get out of class. As she sees people around her react to the story of Khalil’s death she is forced to face racism in her friends that she had been ignoring before.
Should she break her silence and talk about what happened? She talks to the grand jury but should she go public? What will the repercussions be for her family and her neighborhood? Talking publicly will bring up issues like gang violence that no one talks about for fear of retaliation.
This is a vibrant and layered story about life in a poor community in an inner city. It shows an intact African-American family with open love and affection between the parents. That’s rare to find in books. I’ll leave all the analysis of black representation to others but I thought it was amazing.
I would love to hand this book to any white person who has ever thought All Lives Matter was an appropriate response to Black Lives Matter or who thought that a police killing was justified because the person was probably up to no good. I doubt they would read it but this book needs to be out in the world being read by everyone.
The title comes from Tupac. This clip was referenced in the book. He explains what THUG LIFE means to him.