#IMWAYR (3/15/2021): Dear Martin by Nic Stone
Time for some pre-post ranting. We had to get a new washing machine because the 3-year-old one from GE we had (basically this one) has been broken in progressively ridiculous ways for 2 years. Let's see...it would randomly stop in the middle of cycles (i.e. filled with water and soap), it would randomly start again with the lid open, it would forget to undo the electronic lid-lock and prevent us from getting our clothes out at the end, it would make random beeping noises (and not error beeps—just random, arrhythmic chirping), it would be constantly off-balance and making a racket during the spin cycle, and it would use so much energy as the agitator ran that our house lights would flicker, almost imperceptibly (but of course not imperceptibly, because I perceived it), to the rhythm of the agitations. So glad that beast is gone. That is now the fifth GE laundry appliance we have owned that lasted less than four years (including two dryers that made accordion-esque scraping noises within a week of ownership), so please do keep that in mind when you make your purchasing decisions.
Also, you might recall that, back in August, I basically begged everyone to watch this show on HBO Max I love that was in danger of being canceled called Infinity Train. I figured I'd follow up and share the bittersweet news: there will be one last season, but they didn't know it would be the last one when they made it, so it probably won't wrap up the cliffhangers in a fully satisfactory way. Still, it looks awesome, and at this point, I'm just glad for 10 more episodes!
With all of that blabbering, we can get on to the review of Dear Martin by Nic Stone! As a reminder, this book is young adult (YA) instead of middle grade (MG) and contains some mature content.
Let me be clear: if you're anything like me, you will not enjoy this book. You will want to put this book on your bookcase and never touch it again. But that's not because this book is bad. Far from it. You won't want to see this book again because, well, who could possibly want to see the true volume of evil in this world laid out so clearly as it is in Dear Martin? Before we get into all that, though, I want to lay out a few key details. Dear Martin is about Justyce McAllister, a Black senior at a private high school. Justyce is smart, hardworking, and compassionate (not that any of those should be prerequisites for fair treatment), but the police officer who aggressively handcuffs him for daring to help a drunk girl he knows named Melo couldn't care less. Justyce tries to channel his frustration from this incident and the ongoing police brutality against Black people in general into letters to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Perhaps Dr. King's insights might have some secret in them to surviving the onslaught of judgment and cruelty that Black people face and to living in harmony with everyone. But this hope appears more and more far-fetched as Justyce finds himself trapped between two worlds, facing ignorance or far, far worse from White people and scorn over his "wasted" efforts to succeed by some Black people. And the hope practically disintegrates when Justyce and his best friend Manny get into a conflict with an off-duty cop that ends about as horrifically as you could expect. Now thrust into the national spotlight, Justyce is forced to answer the question: if our world continues to reek of injustice, how can Justyce fit into it?
In 208 pages (thank goodness Nic Stone's editors had her chop the book in half, because 400 pages of this would simply be too much to bear), Nic Stone lays bare the absolutely INFURIATING ways that Black people are treated and perceived in our nation. One way that she does this is through some of the classroom conversations about race at Justyce's school, which generally pit SJ, a White student who is both a fellow debate champion alongside Justyce and part of the main love triangle of the story, against Jared, another White student whose ignorance about race and refusal to shut his mouth make him into a deeply unsympathetic character. These discussions are not exactly productive (who knew fighting against people with different beliefs doesn't change those people's minds?), but they do tackle a variety of topics, such as White privilege, affirmative action, and desegregation not being the same as equality, in a way that sets the stage effectively for the broader issues in the book.
And the broader issues...my goodness, they are not fun. When Justyce and Manny are involved in an incident of police brutality that becomes nationwide news, Justyce begins to see firsthand how every single mistake he has ever made, every little natural human misstep in his life, can be transformed, with a bit of social media and vitriol, into ammunition for the cannon of society, aiming to knock him down and prove that he, not the police officer, is in the wrong. Here's a metaphor for you all: if you grabbed a tree branch off the ground and began bending it, would you put it in prison as punishment for snapping in half? Incidents in Justyce's life are taken out of context, and poor choices he has made as a result of being pushed to his breaking point spiral out of control into supposed "proof" that he deserved what he got. Despite the fact that it's not like the police officer read through Justyce's record before doing the horrible things he did. Despite the fact that even the worst people in the world (of which Justyce is obviously not one, but still) do not deserve to be treated unfairly. Our refusal to see the world in a more nuanced way than good and bad comes back to haunt us every time we decide that a person who made mistakes in their personal life deserved to be attacked by a police officer.
But despite Justyce being wrapped up in this horror show, he still has to make his way through regular life. And there's a whole lot of unpleasantness to be had there as well. Justyce is incredibly smart and hardworking (as in 1560-on-the-SAT smart and hardworking), yet the White people that surround him at his private school continue to look at him as undeserving and getting by because of the "race card." So he doesn't fit in well there. And he also doesn't fit in with some Black people, who have themselves been forced by racism so far down a rabbit hole of poor choices that they reject Justyce for trying to succeed. To quote Justyce from one of his letters (the only first-person parts of the book, interestingly) on page 66, he says, "It's like I'm trying to climb a mountain, but I've got one fool trying to shove me down so I won't be on his level, and another fool tugging at my leg, trying to pull me to the ground he refuses to leave." Justyce is definitely not in an enviable position, as you can see. One of the few people who accepts Justyce as himself is the aforementioned SJ. SJ is one of the few bright spots of this book, acting as a great role model for White readers on how not to be a terrible person. But SJ is White, and Justyce fears scorn from his own family for dating a White person, especially once all of the horrible things begin to occur. (And it doesn't help that Justyce spends a bit of the book still pining after the aforementioned Melo—though I'm glad that ended quickly, because that is pretty much the one thing Justyce did that made me want to grab him by the shoulders and say, "Really?!")
Dear Martin paints a grim, realistic, and heartbreaking picture of the real world and how it is set up to fail Black people again and again. And the hopeful-but-not-that-hopeful ending pulls no punches regarding reality. But Dear Martin is readable, immensely so, in large part thanks to Nic Stone's excellent third-person narration and the fast pacing resulting from this book's 208-page length. And that is a good thing, because this is definitely a book that needs to be on your reading list if, like me, you are this late to the party regarding it. Dear Martin is not just some repeat of books like The Hate U Give—it brings an entirely new and unique perspective to the table, and if we want there to be any hope of this situation getting better, making sure to read and understand this perspective is definitely a good start.
My rating is: Stunning!