A Young Adult book tackling race in America by putting a human face to the Black Lives Matter movement was an audacious idea that gets pulled off rather magnificently by Angie Thomas. There was potential for the book to feel one-sided. A lesser writer would have sanded the edges of their characters and the situations they find them in, but Thomas embraces the complicated issues and takes great care to include them. The result is an imperfect but nonetheless staggering achievement that tackles heavy issues in a way that gives them heft. If a reader comes to this uncertain of where they stand on issues of race and/or inequality in America (and I hope some who feel that way do discover this book), they’ll have to decide how they feel and answer why by the time they get to the end. On the other hand, readers like me who think they already agree with Thomas’ point of view will still find themselves challenged about how they think and why. What greater compliment can you give a book?
For example, Thomas doesn’t shy away from the shadier side of the “ghettos” her protagonists live in. Some of the characters either are drug dealers or are former drug dealers–or at least gang-related. I like to think of myself as an open-minded person but I found myself thinking that it would have been better for her to avoid these affiliations in her protagonists so readers would be more likely to sympathize. Well, it turned out that was exactly why she included them after all. She asked me to look deeper and not just think about the scary terminology. Instead, think about the life and the choices that had to come to that place–because things are very rarely black and white. And think about the way terminology has been used to promote knee-jerk responses from people so even someone who wants to understand thinks of them as unsympathetic.
Thomas still has to make some contortions to her wonderfully complicated book to make her theme land, and sometimes she’s a little heavy-handed. For the first fifty pages I was genuinely questioning why the protagonist would be obsessed with The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. It was starting to feel like a case where the author doesn’t know what current teens watch so she just wrote about what she watched back in the day. It turned out Thomas was using it as a pop-culture touchpoint for how the protagonist feels coming from the bad side of town but going to school with the privileged white kids. That’s where Thomas shows her insecurity with her own material–she would have gotten the point across just as well without being so in-your-face. And in reality not everyone has the baseline of wanting to be selfless and do the right thing that Thomas is forced to assume all her characters have aside from one (who naturally gets punished for it in the end).
Still, The Hate U Give is a remarkably clever, complicated book that should be given must-read status for all Americans.