Dear Martin by Nic Stone
Published October 17, 2017
I really wanted to be one of the thousands of people on goodreads raving about how powerful and moving this book was, but honestly I was a little underwhelmed. This is less a reflection of the quality of the book, or a judgment on Nic Stone’s writing, than it is a case of mismatch between reader and intended audience. YA Contemporary isn’t a genre that holds much appeal for me personally, and when I do read YA books I like those that sit towards the adult side of the YA scale. Dear Martin skews decidedly younger. It’s a book that should be present in every American high school classroom and/or library, but as a thirty-something I found it less enthralling. For all that this sounds negative, there are a lot of things to love about Dear Martin. It’s an important and timely book that tackles issues of race relations with sensitivity, and it features a realistic and engaging protagonist in Justyce McAllister. I’m glad I read it, and would recommend Dear Martin to others without hesitation, I just wish my reading experience had left me as emotionally wrecked as others seem to have been by this debut.
At seventeen-years-old, star debater Justyce McAllister is at the top of his class and bound for an ivy-league education. But when he attempts to help a drunk ex get home safely, he’s accosted by a police officer and handcuffed. Although the charges are dropped, the experience rattles him, and Justyce turns to the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
To begin with, I adored Justyce. He’s a realistically teenage and sympathetic protagonist, who is hard-working, intelligent, and yet still naive when it comes to women. Nic Stone deftly conveys Justyce’s feelings of frustration and increasing anger, first at the way he is treated by a police officer when trying to do a good deed. As Justyce becomes aware of the fact that he is viewed as lesser by classmates, who assume that his success is due to affirmative action and not his merits, Justyce begins to view the world differently and wonder what more can he do? She also depicts his feelings of isolation, as Justyce feels that he has no one to talk to that will understand what it is to be a black man. He’s an immensely likable character that I rooted for instantly, and continued to root for, and feel for, especially when his reputation is dragged through the mud in a situation where Justyce should be seen as a victim.
It goes without saying that Dear Martin is an important book. At a time when there’s a loud cry for diverse voices, Nic Stone tackles a timely topic, race relations in America including the shooting of black unarmed men by police officers, with honesty and pathos. As a white woman from a middle-class background, I can never fully understand what it’s like to be a marginalized person and to experience discrimination based on the colour of my skin. I certainly don’t know what it’s like for black men to be racially profiled by authority figures, to have to fear for their lives in encounters with police officers, or to be assumed to be less capable by their white peers. Discussion of how well Nic Stone presents this experience doesn’t belong on my blog, but on blogs of the many diverse bloggers out there who can write with authority on the subject. What I will say is that I thought Stone presented Justyce’s point of view well. I felt angry, frustrated, and ashamed of the way Justyce, and other black characters, are treated by white characters in this book, and Stone opens a window into the rightful anger and pain felt by marginalized people.
As I mentioned, YA Contemporary is not my genre, so it’s likely that Dear Martin was never going to strike me as deeply as someone who reads widely in the genre. My YA preferences also tend towards books like Six of Crows, which feature teenage characters but could just as easily be shelved outside of the Teen section of your local bookstore. Dear Martin reads like it’s intended for a younger audience. At barely two-hundred pages, some of that scenes of pure dialogue written in a script format, it zips along. You’ll undoubtedly finish it in under two hours, but I felt that it was almost TOO quick. There’s no time for events to sit, and for the impact of the story to be felt. In her acknowledgments the author thanks her editor for helping her cut the book in half and honestly I’m sorry we didn’t get a fuller version of the story.
I also found the choice of format really distracting. The majority of the novel is told in the third person, from Justyce’s POV, with excerpts in first person letter format, as Justyce writes to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. while he embarks on an experiment to be more like Dr. King (I would have preferred to see more engagement with the principles of Dr. King, since these are glossed over in the narrative and not examined in any depth). A novel using these two formats would be fine, but Stone also includes scenes that are pure dialogue, as though in a script, to document the class discussions. I found the constant shifting between these three formats, sometimes within the same chapter, a little distracting, especially in such a slim novel.
The other issue with a book this short is that the secondary characters inevitably feel underdeveloped. I liked what we got of them, but many of the characters didn’t feel fleshed out enough and they exist to further Justyce’s story, rather than as people in their own right. This is particularly true of the female characters. Melo is more or less a plot-device and she never gets a resolution or much development beyond being a promiscuous drunk. Justyce’s mom also feels a little one-note as the poor single-mother who doesn’t approve of him dating outside his race.
None of this changes the fact that Dear Martin is still an important, and engaging read, I just found the pacing, formatting, under-developed minor characters, and young feel to the story all made it difficult for me to be as invested as I hoped I would be.