Summary of Chapters 1 - 3
The novel opens on a spring break party in the gang-contested neighborhood of Garden Heights. 16-year-old Starr Carter feels out of place at the party, which is crowded with dancing teenagers and smells like marijuana. She was pressured to go to the party by Kenya, a girl her age whom she knows because they share an older brother named Seven: Seven’s father is Starr’s father, and Seven’s mother is Kenya’s mother. Starr attends Williamson Prep, a school forty-five minutes away from Garden Heights populated by mostly white students; Kenya was able to persuade Starr to attend the party, even though Starr’s parents don’t allow her to attend parties in the area, because Kenya accused Starr of acting as if she were white. Starr reflects on how she feels out of place both at the spring break party and at Williamson Prep, as Kenya plans to beat up Denasia, a girl at the party she dislikes.
Kenya leaves with two friends to get drinks, and Starr stands alone, feeling awkward. The uncomfortable moment passes when Starr sees Khalil, a close childhood friend. Khalil looks good, and is dressed in fancy clothes and shoes, which makes Starr suspect that he’s been making money by selling drugs. Khalil updates Starr on his life—his grandmother lost her job since starting chemotherapy for cancer, and his mother is struggling with a drug habit—and then the two talk and joke together. Suddenly, gunshots ring out from across the room, and partygoers begin scattering.
Khalil grabs Starr’s hand and they run to his car. Once inside and driving away from the party, Starr texts Kenya and confirms that she’s safe. Starr and Khalil continue to talk as Khalil drives; when Starr asks Khalil whether he’s selling drugs, Khalil responds that it’s none of her business. The two also reminisce about their childhood. They used to be best friends with another girl named Natasha, who has since passed away. In the middle of their conversation, blue lights flash in the rearview mirror and a siren sounds as a police car pulls Khalil’s car over.
Starr remembers that when she was twelve, her parents gave her two talks: one about sex, and one about what to do when interacting with the police. Starr’s parents told her not to talk back to the police and to do what they want, so when Khalil “breaks a rule”—asking the officer why he was pulled over instead of taking out his license, registration, and proof of insurance—Starr begins to get nervous. Annoyed that Khalil is talking back, the police officer makes Khalil get out of the car. He pats Khalil down and warns him not to move as he walks back to his patrol car. Khalil opens the driver’s door to ask Starr if she’s okay, and the police officer shoots him three times in the back. Starr watches with numb horror as blood sprays out of her friend’s body and he collapses. She screams in shock and runs to Khalil’s body, watching it stiffen as he passes away. The police officer points his gun at her, and she puts her hands up.
People begin to gather around Starr while the police search Khalil’s car, then place a sheet over his body. Starr is told to sit in an ambulance as she waits for her parents to arrive. Finally, her father, Maverick, and mother, Lisa, make it to the scene; they sit with Starr and hug her for a long time before driving her home. Still in shock, Starr gets nauseous on the drive home and throws up out the window. Once at home, her mother helps her remove her bloodstained clothes and take a steaming bath. Finally, Starr falls asleep, but nightmares wake her up over and over again.
The next day, Starr wakes up and heads to the kitchen, where her parents and Seven are eating breakfast. Starr lives in her grandmother’s old house, which her family inherited after her grandmother moved in with Starr’s Uncle Carlos in the suburbs. Seven lives with his father King and King’s girlfriend Iesha, as well as Kenya and their sister Lyric. When Starr enters the kitchen, Seven and her father are talking about how King is physically abusive to Iesha, Kenya and Lyric. Seven brings up the elephant in the room—Khalil’s death—and the three try to console Starr. They decide not to tell anyone, not even Starr’s younger brother Sekani, that Starr was present at the shooting.
To keep Starr busy, her father takes her to the small grocery store that he owns. Starr helps her father sell groceries to the regulars, including Mr. Lewis, a cantankerous old man who angers Starr by being flippant about Khalil’s death. Kenya enters the store, and Starr’s father gives the girls money to buy lunch at Reuben’s, a deli across the street. Kenya asks Starr why she is being so quiet, but Starr doesn’t tell her that she saw Khalil get shot. After eating, the two girls walk outside as King, Kenya and Seven’s father, pulls up in a BMW. He tries to act familiar with Starr and offers her money for the lunch, but Starr isn’t interested; she knows that King is involved in gang business and abusive towards his girlfriend and children. Starr’s father approaches the BMW to talk to King. King argues that Starr’s father owes him a favor, since he helped him buy his grocery store; but Starr’s father points out that since he helped keep King out of prison, the two men are even. He warns King not to touch Seven again, and King drives away angrily.
Analysis of Chapters 1 -3
Starr’s discomfort at the party, as well as the fact that she doesn’t often spend time with Kenya in social situations, point to the conflict she feels between acting like “Williamson Starr” and “Garden Heights Starr.” Williamson Prep is a virtually all-white school, so Starr feels the need to change the way she speaks and acts in order not to be considered “ghetto.” Her race already makes her stand out in the homogenous environment, so she changes even small aspects of her personality to fit in at school. Back in her neighborhood, however, the very fact that she attends Williamson Prep makes her an anomaly again. Kenya and others complain that they never see Starr around, and imply that she thinks she’s too fancy for the neighborhood.
The fight that occurs at the party reveals the danger of gang presence in Garden Heights. While the violence is senseless, it is also a fact of life for Starr and others who grew up in the neighborhood. Starr, Khalil, and Kenya are upset that the shooting occurred, but not surprised; Kenya even tries to start a fight with a girl as they flee from the party. Gangs, and the violence and drug trade that are inextricably tied up with their existence, are undeniably a part of the social structure of Garden Heights.
Similarly, Khalil’s death is shocking in its suddenness, horrifying in its brutality, and tragic in its pointlessness—but it is not entirely unexpected. Starr has known from the age of twelve that many police officers can be expected to treat black people differently than white people. The officer in this case completely fulfills her worst fears. When Khalil doesn’t do what the officer tells him to do, the situation quickly escalates into disastrous consequences. His death is a continuation of the theme of meaningless death that Starr has already been exposed to.
Natasha’s death represents the ubiquitousness of violence as a result of oppressive social structures and the danger of the gangs in the Garden Heights neighborhood. As a child, Starr had to witness her best friend killed in a drive-by shooting: a senseless killing that takes Natasha as an innocent victim. The experience made Starr aware early on that death and violence are an unfortunate function of the place that she lives in. Starr is no stranger to injustice, and Khalil’s death conforms to the narrative of inequity and tragedy that Starr has been forced to be a part of.
Finally, the opening chapters of the book introduce the importance of family to Starr’s life. After witnessing an unspeakably horrific act, Starr is comforted by hugs from her parents. The day after the shooting, they are there to help her through the rawness of her pain. Starr’s father, Maverick, also defends Seven from King’s brutality. Community and family are central to Starr’s support system, helping to keep her together in the wake of Khalil’s death and offering a positive counterpoint to the cruelty and violence that Starr was drawn into.