Review: Dear Martin by Nic Stone

Hello everyone, and welcome back!

This very-buzzed about book was released in the fall of last year, but I accidentally ordered it with a pre-order book and had to wait until now to get into it. So this isn’t much of a hot take or really a blast from the backlist, but given its subject matter, it’s still very relevant.

So let’s get to it!

Dear Martin by Nic Stone

This cover has a simple, clean design that accurately reflects what’s going on in the book. Props to the designer.

Dear Martin

Dear Martin covers some months in the life of Justyce, who is initially arrested for trying to help his on-and-off girlfriend get home on a night she’s drunk, and decides after to start a project where he writes letters to Martin Luther King Jr. to try to grapple with how to deal with racial injustice. He finds himself up against more of it on a day he and his best friend Manny are out for a drive, and they meet up with an off-duty cop.

That much is expressed in the teasers online, although the later situation happens somewhere in the middle of the book, so I was honestly surprised it came up there. (Feels like kind of a spoiler? But it’s a spoiler the book wants you to have ahead, I guess.)

This is the kind of book that’s hard to review because it’s important and expresses useful, currently relevant sentiments, but it isn’t necessarily just…a really good novel. (The Hate U Give made my life easy in this respect by getting there on both counts.)

In any case: the short version of my review for this book is that it was evocative, but really short. Like we’re talking a two-hundred-page-situation short. So what provokes reactions and emotions from the reader is not so much the characters, because you don’t have a lot of time to get to know all of them (and there are a fair amount of them, for a short book: Justyce, his mom, his favourite teacher, his best friend Manny, Manny’s parents, his on-off girlfriend, another love interest, Manny’s other best friend Jared, Jared’s friends, Manny’s cousin, Manny’s cousin’s friends, etc.).

The situations in this book, and how Justyce ruminates on them, are really how you can get sucked into this story. It’s easy to have a gut reaction to Justyce being arrested, to incidents where others express racist views, to conflicts between the characters that leave Justyce feeling isolated, and so on. And that said, it’s a worthwhile story. The injustices Justyce struggles with are real, and his difficulty in coming up with perfect answers to deal with them reflect reality. If this is the way the world is, and he’ll be seen a certain way no matter what he does, then who is Justyce supposed to be? What if there is no justice? How will he live with it?

The book reflects what reads like an almost unavoidable cycle of violence, but it does end hopefully, albeit at a terrible cost. It’s worth reading for the questions that it asks and for the lack of easy answers it gives.

However…yeah, it’s not my favourite reading experience. I enjoyed it and it asks meaningful questions, but it does lack depth. All of the characters are basically defined by their situations because we don’t really get to know them, which feels mildly ironic in a book that grapples with stereotyping. I could still sympathize with them (or hate them) because they were going through a lot that was difficult (or causing the protagonist a lot of grief), but I didn’t connect with them as memorable.

There’s another aspect here that got me to thinking: The instances of racism in this book are very overtly obvious, as if the reader can’t be trusted to be on Justyce and Manny’s side if they were getting upset over anything less. The jerkish white kids in this book aren’t throwing around racist microaggressions—they’re being very straight-up in their awfulness (at one point, a guy dresses up as a member of the KKK as a joke) and they’re acting like anyone reacting to that is being “too sensitive.”

And like…it comes off almost as stretching your suspension of disbelief, even though obviously this stuff happens in real life. But I remember that the strategy of If I Was Your Girl,  for example, was to make the main character so incredibly “palatable” as a trans girl (transitioned via surgery, very feminine, straight, always “passing”) that she would be easy for cis readers to relate to and sympathize with. In some ways, though, that means you’re pitching the book as high school required reading—because the teens who would seek out the novel on their own are already doing it because they’re willing and happy to read about a trans (or in this case, black male) protagonist, and they are ready (or at least mostly willing) to be on that character’s side.

So the people who are the audience of a strategy like that are those being slightly coerced into reading a book, and what you have to hope is to make an argument so strong and clear-cut that even those with entrenched points of view will step outside of their box. That I get and admire to some extent, but then, it leaves less room for nuance, and a lot more room for people who are not as obviously prejudiced to excuse themselves, to not check their privilege.

(Also, the implied audience feels a little strange here, because Justyce’s through-thread of trying to decide what to do and who to be in the face of all this prejudice are very much for the kind of person who faces racism, not the kind of person who needs to read this book and recognize that those injustices exist. Maybe those two strategies are in parallel to try to make this book work for a broader amount of readers, but I think the two strategies don’t exactly mesh.)

Not making awful racist jokes or shooting off slurs or straight-up shooting someone doesn’t mean a person has conquered the internalized racism they’ve been raised with. There’s more to it than that. (I mean, take me with a grain of salt on this whole review as a white person trying to check my own privilege every day.)

But the sentiments in this book—recognizing the cycle of violence, the problems with respectability politics, the prevalence of racial profiling, the very real danger that black male teens face currently—are important, are expressed in an active, easy (and quick) to read way, and can open up a lot of thought and dialogue without being openly teach-y. So the book is a good one to read and I’d recommend it, even if it’s not in my kind of four-star wheelhouse.

Overall:


Are there books that you’d recommend that aren’t necessarily in your favourite style of writing? What makes them valuable and/or important? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll speak to you again soon!

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