Book Review: Dear Martin by Nic Stone

September 24, 2018

Edition: Simon & Schuster Paperback
Release Date: October 17, 2017
Pages: 210
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary
Links: Goodreads | Author's Website | Buy the book

Justyce McAllister is top of his class and set for the Ivy League – but none of that matters to the police officer who just put him in handcuffs. And despite leaving his rough neighbourhood behind, he can't escape the scorn of his former peers or the ridicule of his new classmates.

Justyce looks to the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for answers. But do they hold up anymore? He starts a journal to Dr. King to find out.

Then comes the day Justyce goes driving with his best friend, Manny, windows rolled down, music turned up – way up, sparking the fury of a white off-duty police officer beside them. Words fly. Shots are fired. Justyce and Manny are caught in the crosshairs. In the media fallout, it's Justyce who is under attack.

There isn’t a moment of Nic Stone’s ‘Dear Martin’ that doesn’t hurt like hell. Every evocative page packs a punch. It’s confronting and brutal yet necessary because of the hard truths it espouses. It’s an impressive debut that centres on a series of devastating events that happen to protagonist Justyce McAllister, a young black teenager headed for Yale, who is tragically awakened to the harsh reality of White America. The novel is exactly that, devastating and often hard to swallow. But for many black people of colour, life imitates art in ‘Dear Martin’. Nic Stone is only revealing the reality many black youths have long lived with. 

‘Dear Martin’ is only 210 pages and it’s an express train to heartbreak. Most heartbreaking, however, is that whilst Justyce McAllister may be fictional, his plight and circumstances are very real. As a reader with black heritage, none of this came as a surprise to me. However, a huge part of this novel’s power lays in the fact that it will, unfortunately (and fortunately) surprise and therefore educate a lot of unaware white and non-black readers who haven’t been exposed to or lived aware of race relations. These readers will no doubt find discomfort in the realness Justyce’s story presents. However, I am hoping that by embracing rather than shunning such discomfort, readers will begin to look at their own socialisation, their own privilege, and their own relationship with race and decide to be part of the solution. 

I finished ‘Dear Martin’ in just a few hours, finishing it before bed only to wake up ridiculously early the next morning with Justyce heavy on my mind. You know something is good when your brain interrupts your sleep just so it can process it and toss ideas around more clearly. Thanks a lot! I spent a majority of the book being shocked not at the content of the story but at how close to home some of Justyce’s inner conflict was hitting (whilst obviously recognising that there was also a lot depicted which I will never experience or be able to relate to). I wrote a personal short story just last year about the daily microaggressions many people of colour navigating predominately white spaces experience and SO many of them were echoed in ‘Dear Martin’. It was insane. 

Representation is so powerful and when you’re not used to being on the receiving end, it’s reaffirming yet super overwhelming. With the exception of Angie Thomas’s novel (and soon to be film) ‘The Hate U Give’, race and culture were parts of myself I left behind and had invisibilised when reading fiction. Thankfully things in the publishing industry are slowly changing thanks to readers and writers championing for more diverse and own voices fiction. 

‘The Hate U Give’ and ‘Dear Martin’ are one in a million and hopefully, the start of more to come. Yes, it is worth reading BOTH ‘THUG’ and ‘Dear Martin’. They are different but I’m not going to compare them here because the same pressure to compare and rank white authors dealing with similar themes just doesn’t exist. Both books complement each other but are noticeably different stories that each contribute to and expand a very relevant and critical conversation about police brutality and racial profiling in the United States. 

The novel is a cool mixture of different formats despite being told mostly in third person narration. Nic Stone includes Justyce’s journal which features letters written to Dr Martin Luther King, which chronicle his endgame of becoming just like Martin. Obviously, such an ambition isn’t easy and there are many moments that shake Justyce’s faith, but by including these letters we are allowed to see Justyce at his most vulnerable and confused. Not only do most young Black Men have to navigate coming of age, relationships, high school and getting into college, but also finding their identity in a world set out to definite it for them. Part of me selfishly wishes we saw more letters throughout the course of the story but it’s almost like there just wasn’t time, this is one fast moving book.

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.

In saying that, the length of the book is both a point of praise and a critique. It’s beyond impressive that Nic Stone manages to completely destroy us all in 210 pages and it’s a testament to her skills as a writer that she can advance a huge and complex story in such a short span of time. However, I would have loved a longer book because it would have afforded more time to flesh things out and I felt that without extra time, some parts of the story felt incomplete and rushed towards the end. Especially when you consider that it takes a lifetime for people of colour to come to terms with institutionalised racism (I’m not sure one ever comes to terms with a continued history of oppression), even without the serious adversity faced by Justyce during this novel. So to have this all occur in 210 pages was a lot to swallow. 

Part of what made this novel so damn emotional is that overall, Nic Stone doesn’t necessarily offer a solution to feeling hopeless and enraged at the state of racism in America. She simply acknowledges and validates that rage. You won’t feel any less angry or any more hopeful after reading ‘Dear Martin’ but hopefully, it will get you thinking and seeing how little thinking is being done about this matter by the wider public at present, this in itself is a notable feat.

Parts of the novel featured news reports, as well as transcripted dialogue similar to the way it would be presented in a script. Because I’m lazy and familiar with how most ‘friendly racial debate’ goes down, I appreciated it. However, the use of transcripted dialogue to convey important conversations that many readers will never have had before, felt out of place in such a serious novel. It felt too young and too simple for a Young Adult novel, particularly one of this nature. I must admit, I couldn’t get past it but maybe I’m just a picky reader. In saying that, I do feel like the length of ‘Dear Martin’ and the accessibility of its format, would make this perfect required reading for a high school English class. I really hope this is a novel that gets studied in school because it excels in covering such a wide span of racial issues, from the everyday insensitivities to the outright inhumane killing and criminalisation of black lives. 

Even though this review used a lot of negative and heavy adjectives to describe ‘Dear Martin’, I believe that the most powerful works of fiction are the ones that get down to the nitty-gritty and shock you to the core. I use words like devastating and confronting not to send you away but as a testament to its emotional impact. It’s an emotional rollercoaster that is well worth it because ultimately, there is an abundance of beauty to be found in the resilience and honesty that ‘Dear Martin’ endorses.

Post a Comment

Thank for stopping by my small corner of the web, I hope you enjoyed your time here. Feel free to leave a comment, I love reading them. Sending you a thousand lovely days x

© A Sunny Spot. Design by FCD. Header using graphics from Freepik.