In 1906, Upton Sinclair published The Jungle, a novel exposing the oppressive labor practices and health violations of the meatpacking industry. The book drew national attention to an ongoing problem and helped usher in reforms that began to improve conditions for laborers and sanitation practices throughout the nation. (Sinclair meant to alarm people with the horrific working conditions, but more people were disturbed by the revelation of what was going into their food. But whatever.)
So influential was The Jungle that we still read it today. Not only does it captures a particular part of our national history in vivid detail, but it tells a compelling story with relatable characters. I’ve written about other books that do this and how those two elements – timeless themes combined with the encapsulation of a particular bit of history – are the pillars that hold up the stories we consider classics.
Angie Thomas’s 2017 novel The Hate U Give is therefore destined for the “classics” shelf of the future. You’ve most likely heard about this book by now, but if not, here’s a quick recap. The protagonist, Starr Carter, witnesses her childhood friend Khalil gunned down by a police officer during a traffic stop. Khalil is unarmed at the time. The story then follows America’s reaction to the killing, and Starr’s own journey as she tries to figure out how she fits into both the larger conversation on race, and her own communities at home and at school.
The novel’s historic significance is obvious. Police brutality is an increasingly hot topic, an emotional national conversation. The Hate U Give shows the often untold story behind the headlines, the horror, the grief, the anger when justice is denied. At the same time, Starr’s relationships to her family members, her friends in the African-American community where she grew up, and her friends and boyfriend at the mostly-white private school she attends, capture the struggle of a young woman who feels caught between two identities.
All the characters are incredibly real and relatable. No one is perfect. The heroes make mistakes. Some villains make heroic sacrifices. By the end of the book, you feel you know these people like good friends. Their pain is your pain, even if you’ve never had to confront police brutality in real life. Like all significant novels, The Hate U Give takes a topic from which many people feel intellectually detached, and makes it impossible not to engage.
These two elements – the timelessness of Starr’s struggle to understand herself, and the detailed capturing of a specific moment of history – ensure this book will be read and studied for years to come. Hopefully, in the not-too-distant future, it will be read from the perspective from which we now read The Jungle: One of historical interest, and relief that things have finally improved.