This is one of my most anticipated 2017 releases, and – God – did it deliver! This book is both important for its message and the subject matter that it represents, and also really, really good. Starr’s voice is strong and unique, all of the characters are fleshed out so they feel real, and the story grips you by the heartstrings right from the start.
Starr is 16 years old when she witnesses her best friend Khalil get shot by a police officer after being pulled over. In the weeks that follow, she must battle not only with her own grief, her guilt, her fear for her safety and those around her, but also with the police investigation, with the media spotlight, with protestors fighting for justice for Khalil, and with those who think that Khalil deserved it. Starr knows that what happened was wrong, but speaking out comes with its own struggles.
Books like THUG are one of my favourite things about YA books. Angie Thomas addresses a current, pressing and very divisive issue in a way that makes it feel real to readers. Angie Thomas said in an interview that she has heard from readers who are from white supremacist backgrounds feeling touched by this novel, and it’s easy to see why. Starr, as both a protagonist and a narrator, is superb. Angie’s writing makes Starr’s feelings so clear to the reader, from the shock after Khalil’s death, to her sorrow and grief, her fear for her own safety at multiple times during the book, her guilt over being afraid to speak up, and her anger that fuels her fight for justice. The book brilliantly balances all of the different aspects of the story: the plot, the characters, and the message. All three parts complement and support each other perfectly, amplifying each other so that the book all but knocks you over as you read it. Angie Thomas takes an issue that many people will only be used to hearing about in headlines and news reports, and makes it human.
Starr is a brilliant narrator and protagonist. Her voice is clear, honest, and funny, although it is probably more accurate to say that there are two Starrs at the beginning of this novel. There is the Starr that lives in Garden Heights, a poor neighbourhood with its gangs, drugs, and shootings, but also its friendly neighbours, her dad’s shop, her family and her friends. There is also the Starr who attends the fancy, mostly white private school in the suburbs, who is cool simply because she is black, but who can’t be too ‘black’ or she’ll be seen as a thug. This separation of her identity is something that we see Starr grapple with a lot, and it adds a lot of layers to her as a character. She doesn’t tell her friends that she knew Khalil, and her friends don’t visit her at her house.
It was a great strength of the book that its characters where multifaceted and weren’t always completely sure what to think. Starr’s Uncle Carlos is a police officer himself, and he admits that he let his friends convince him that maybe Khalil deserved it even though he knew him, an even though it could have just as easily been his niece, and Starr has to deal with the guilt of knowing she was too ashamed to tell her friends the truth about Khalil. I found it interesting to see how her experiences have ramifications for all areas of her life, making her question her friends more, and even question whether she is betraying herself and her friends by having a white boyfriend. For lack of a better way to say it, the characters in this novel are not black and white, and their personal challenges add another layer to a story that is already excellent.
Overall, I don’t hesitate to say that I think THUG should be recommended reading for everyone. This book is both fantastic and important. It addresses racism in various forms, from institutional racism to the hidden racism of Starr’s school friends who prefer to ignore the problem, but it also shows brilliant characters, beautiful relationships, whether it’s those in Starr’s family, her friendships, or that of her and her boyfriend.