Friday 1 July 2022
CBR14 Book 9: "Dear Martin" by Nic Stone
Rating: 4.5 stars
Justyce McAllister is a seventeen-year-old with a bright future, thanks to his grades and being lucky enough to have a mother who has worked herself to the bone to send him to the prestigious prep school in Atlanta. Then one evening, when trying to help his extremely drunken ex-girlfriend get home safely (she's half-black, but looks more like her Norwegian mother than her black dad), he's detained by a very aggressive cop who's convinced he was trying to carjack and abduct the girl. Even after the girl's actual parents show up at the scene to protest, the cop is reluctant to let Justyce go and the scars the episode give him aren't limited to the bruising on his wrists that take weeks to heal.
Justyce suddenly finds himself becoming a lot more aware of race relations and especially the micro-aggressions that he and his fellow black students at the school (there aren't many) suffer, as well as how cases of police violence against black youths are being presented in the media, not to mention tried in the courts. His best friend Manny has a rich CEO father and lives a life of privilege very different from what Justyce has experienced growing up. Manny has a bunch of white friends and doesn't seem to understand exactly why Justyce suddenly seems to see racism everywhere. The fact that Manny's frequently insensitive friends can hold him up as a black success story to prove that, sure, there's equality now, doesn't exactly help matters. Justyce begins to spend more time with his debate partner, valedictorian S-J (Sarah Jane). She's Jewish, so a lot more used to having to fend off insensitive comments and micro-aggressions than Manny.
Justyce starts a journal, where he tries to model his life more on the teachings on Martin Luther King Jr, by writing letters to the dead preacher. This seems to work for a while, but all thoughts of journalling are gone from Justyce's mind after he and Manny go driving one evening, blasting their music loudly on the speakers, and a deeply unfortunate encounter with an angry off-duty cop ends with Manny dead at the wheel. Even more traumatic than being wrongfully arrested, Justice now needs to process surviving where his best friend didn't. He's gone from reading the headlines to becoming one himself, and the event leaves him shaken and deeply conflicted.
My fellow English teachers and I taught this book in school along with The Hate U Give, and the two novels feature a lot of the same themes. Novels written by young black women, dealing with gun violence, racism and police brutality, with protagonists who are more or less the token black teens at their schools, with all the challenges that brings. Our tenth-graders could choose if they wanted to read this book, The Hate U Give or both (none of them chose both, unsurprisingly). One of my colleagues prefers this book to Angie Thomas', as she feels that the longer novel deals with too many themes that distract from the central message. As someone who really loved how Thomas wrote about Starr and her family, as well as the journey of personal development Starr had to go through after her friend Khalil is murdered by a cop, I think that novel still has the edge for me. This book is shorter, and doesn't spend as much time on the community and people around Justyce. Both books are excellent, and very important novels for readers interested in the #blacklivesmatter cause and the challenges sadly faced by a lot of young African Americans today.
One benefit for us teachers when using this as part of the curriculum, this novel doesn't have a movie adaptation that the kids can watch and then claim that they've read the book. In the subsequent group talks we had on the topic, it was very clear who had actually read and finished their assigned novels when we spoke about Dear Martin, the ones who hadn't just taken the easy way out and watched the film. Also published in 2017, I don't think Stone's novel has gotten the praise and attention that The Hate U Give did, which is a shame, because both novels are great and this book deserves just as big a readership as Thomas'.
Judging a book by its cover: A relatively simple cover, with a mostly white background and a young, black man in silhouette. I like how you see red lights like police sirens shining through the body of the young man, hinting at the contents of the book.
Crossposted on Cannonball Read.