There is often a necessary delay between historical events and how they are addressed in fiction. I don’t just mean the time it takes for a writer to respond, but the interval that is somehow required before we can consider the event in print and then (because I think it has to follow) in fiction.
The (my?) increasing awareness of the brutal treatment of people of color at the hands (and guns) of the police has certainly been explored in non-fiction written for adults. See Wesley Lowery’s They Can’t Kill Us All for a recent and excellent example. But right now, I can’t think of any fictional examples.
But writers of young adult fiction (a genre that is becoming increasingly complex while at the same time remaining difficult to define) are not shying away from the challenge. Angie Thomas’ brilliant The Hate U Give is a powerful example. Stone’s Dear Martin, though it overlaps a bit in terms of its topicality, is both a very different and an equally outstanding book.
Like Thomas (and Sharon Draper in Tears of a Tiger – come to think of it, these are all first novels), Stone appears to violate a storytelling convention. The event that might normally be reserved for the conflict is, instead, a catalyzing one. But that’s a poor reading on my part. These stories are less about the dramatic event – perhaps because there’s a tragic inevitability to it and more about the aftermath.
Stone’s book, written briskly in the present tense, retains its urgent tone for all of its 208 pages. I read it in two days, not because it was written for young adults and therefore easy, but because its pages demand to be turned. Like Draper’s novel, Stone uses a variety of formats – narrative, dialogue, news accounts, letters – to propel the story forward. I don’t know what the first draft of the novel looked like, but in this version, there is not a wasted moment; every page, every character – everything matters. There is, from my perspective, plenty to discuss here including post-traumatic stress disorder, stereotype threat, and the sins of our fathers.
I also admired how Stone drew me into Justyce’s perspective when he took the bus to see Martel. I knew I was behind his eyes because I was making the same assumptions he was. And Stone, here and elsewhere, makes it clear that there are no angels here. Justyce has his flaws. He is, despite his name (which seemed heavy-handed at first, but pays off, well, I made a promise to avoid spoilers), no more an example of exceptionalism than he thought he was. His friendship with Manny, his friend who is slowly awakening to the world, is nuanced and honest. And his mother, though her pages are limited, is also dynamic. Where others may have sketched a cliche here, Stone creates humanity.
The person who recommended this book to me wrote that he had to check to find out if the author is female. I think I know at least one of the reasons why. Stone’s descriptions of Justyce’s mental, physical and verbal awkwardness is absolutely pitch-perfect. His sweet clumsiness makes him endearing and reminds us that he is, in many ways, just an ordinary teenage boy. And that’s part of the tragedy here. What happens to him is becoming increasingly ordinary. But this book reminds us that we can’t let it become normal.
I can’t let the title pass without comment. Justyce, for reasons he never explicitly articulates (in part because he’s not sure himself) writes letters to Dr. King in order to try to figure out how he would respond to events in Justyce’s life. King, Justyce realizes, ends up teaching more by example than anything that can be discovered in his writings.