If I had to describe this book in one word, I would use relentless. This is where its power lies. It never lets up.
Justyce McAllister is an 18 year old black teenager living in Atlanta, attending a prestigious (and mostly white) prep school. At the start of his senior year, he’s cuffed and attacked by a police officer as he’s helping his girlfriend into her car. This act of police violence forces him to face his place in the world. He begins writing letters to Martin Luther King, Jr., in an attempt to answer the overwhelming question of how to live as black man in America.
Over the course of the book, Justyce faces racism, racial violence, and hatred from just about every corner. He deals with microaggressions, blatant racism, ridicule, and disrespect from his white classmates. He deals with the fallout of being involved in a police shooting, and the cascade of national media that follows: the scapegoating and racist reporting. It never ends, and he can’t win. It’s a short book, but powerful. Stone does a masterful job at keeping the reader right there with Justyce, in the midst of his seemingly never-ending struggle. He comes alive on the page, and so does the persistence of the racist society in which we live.
I did feel that some of the supporting characters were weakly drawn. Justyce’s love interest, a white girl, felt a bit too stereotypical–a good white person and a woke liberal, but little more. But my biggest problem with the book lies with the ending. It involves a conversation between Justyce and a white classmate, Jared, who’d been extraordinarily racist and harmful toward him throughout the book. Jared is painted as the enemy, but in the last pages of the book, he and Justyce come to an understanding that feels way too pat, way too easy.
Up until that point, Dear Martin felt complex and honest–but that conversation tipped it over the edge into the realm of the unbelievable. The white kid is racist, the white kid sees he’s wrong, the white kid changes his ways, and the white kid is forgiven, no questions asked. And all of that happens off-screen. All we get to see is the end result: Jared is a changed man, and Justyce forgives him. It all felt rushed and contrived. I wish I had simply stopped listening after Justyce’s last letter to Martin. The last few minutes ruined it for me.
All that said, excepting the very end, this is an engaging, honest, and nuanced novel about racism, police brutality, and racial violence. The audiobook is excellent, and it’s only four hours; if you commute, you could read it in just a few days.
It seems to me that we should all be reading as much as we can about systemic racism and police brutality. For many white people like me, it is much easier to look away. Most often, this violence is not happening in our communities, to our friends, within our families. But once you’ve read this book, once you’ve read The Hate U Give, once you’ve read Long Way Down, once you’ve read Speak No Evil (forthcoming on March 6th from Harper), it becomes harder and harder to look away. These books have broken me, they have forced me to consider the ways in which I look away from the world, and they have inspired me to more actively work for racial justice.
Dear Martin is not perfect, but it still has a lot to say. It is one story among many, one perceptive among many. I’m trying to read as many perspectives and stories as I possibly can.