Dear Martin by Nic Stone. (Ember, 2017)
“Last night changed me. I don’t wanna walk around all pissed off, and looking for problems, but I know I can’t continue to pretend nothing’s wrong, Yeah, there are no more ‘colored’ water fountains, and it’s supposed to be illegal to discriminate, but if I can be forced to sit on the concrete in too-tight cuffs when I’ve done nothing wrong, it’s clear that there’s an issue. That things aren’t as equal as folks say they are.”
After a nasty encounter with a police officer, who obviously is misconstruing Justyce McAllister’s attempt to help his drunk girlfriend get into her car so that he can drive her home, Justyce suddenly wakes up to other incidents of violence against black people. Safe in a bubble of a mostly white private school, Braselton Preparatory Academy, located in Atlanta, Georgia, Justyce has been operating under the belief that black people, if they work really hard and stay out of trouble, can become as successful and upwardly mobile as his best friend, Manny’s, parents are.
However, as a result of one innocent incident where Justyce is falsely accused and not permitted to explain the situation to a cop who doesn’t want to hear it, his eyes are opened, and he tries an experiment. He begins writing a series of letters to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for this reason:
I need to pay more attention, Martin. Start really seeing stuff and writing it down. Figure out what to do with it. That’s why I’m
writing to you. You faced worse shi---I mean stuff than sitting in handcuffs for a few hours. . . I wanna try to live like you. Do what
you would do. See where it gets me.
In her debut novel, Nic Stone has created a cast of characters who break away from the clichéd stereotypes in young adult fiction. Told through a combination of points of view, third-person narrative, letter writing, and dialogue that allows for the characters to speak in their own voices, Dear Martin has great flow and is a compelling and realistic read.
Search for self identity is one of the themes of Stone’s novel. Shunned by kids from his old neighborhood for selling out and attending a prep school, he feels conspicuous and fairly friendless at Braselton Prep.
On Halloween, Justyce agrees to join his friends in a group costume called the “Equality Brigade.” The idea, propagated by Jared, a white student, calls for the boys to dress as different stereotypes for Halloween, and then go out together.” Jared claims that the intent of the group costumes is to make a “massive political statement about racial equality,” but when one of the five shows up in a Klansman costume, Justyce knows that this whole idea feels wrong, especially after overhearing a conversation in the lunchroom where Jared and company, have revealed their true feelings about racial relations.
So why do Justyce and Manny decide to go along with the crowd, despite knowing that their experiment on social justice is bound to be a failure? The answer is one that Justyce must probe himself in his journey for self-awareness.
Another theme of the novel is the question of inter-racial relationships. In the beginning of the book, Justyce is in an on again- off again relationship with Melo Taylor, who cheats on him and drinks too much. Although his friends tell him that the way he chases after her is “sick,” he can’t break his addiction. That is, until he discovers that he has romantic feelings for his debate team partner, SJ, a white girl. Justyce’s mother makes her feelings about Justyce dating a white girl; it’s a non-negotiable no.
Justyce’s argument with his mother regarding SJ is that she is Jewish, and her people have known suffering too. “Doesn’t matter, son. You can’t see Jewish in her skin color. You tried to help that other girl and wound up in handcuffs And her daddy is black, ain’t he? If it looks white, it’s white in this world.”
Although Justyce wants to respect his mother’s opinion, it is hard for him to fight his feelings for SJ, who has supported him through the terrible events of his senior year.
Dear Martin is the perfect novel to open up productive discussions about race relations in our deeply divided country. Many of the book’s scenes take place in a course on Societal Evolution, with a very cool, half black teacher, Dr. Jarius Dray. Doc, as the kids call him, creates a safe space for his students, in which they can discuss openly questions about race and know that their opinions will not leave the classroom door. These scenes help the book feel real to youngsters and is most appropriate for school discussions.
Following the success of Dear Martin, Nic Stone’s publisher convinced her to write a sequel called Dear Justyce, which carries on the themes of Dear Martin from a different perspective. I recommend both novels highly as they are well written, probing works that invite honest conversations that will enlighten many of today’s youth on the realities of social injustice.