JANUARY 16, 2021
ANGIE THOMAS’S NEW NOVEL Concrete Rose is a prequel to her debut best seller, The Hate U Give (2017). It takes readers back to the neighborhood of Garden Heights and features younger versions of many of the same characters. This time around, the story is told through the eyes of 17-year-old Maverick Carter, future father of The Hate U Give’s hero, Starr. Maverick boasts a lovely girlfriend, Lisa, and a circle of ride-or-die friends in his fellow King Lords, a street gang that his father, Adonis (a.k.a. Big Don), once ruled. With his father now in prison and his mother Faye working two jobs, Maverick tries to help out where he can, but odd jobs hardly bring in anything substantial, so he turns to dealing drugs.
A rapid series of events causes Maverick’s life to capsize. After a break-up with Lisa, a one-night stand leads to unexpected fatherhood. Determined to provide for his child and distance himself from his dangerous lifestyle, he scrapes by on the wages he makes working at Mr. Wyatt’s grocery store. But his life only unravels further when a family member is murdered, testing his resolution to keep his hands clean when confronted with an urge for revenge.
“Maverick has always been my favorite,” Thomas writes in the preface to Concrete Rose, explaining her decision to explore his character further in this novel. “Maybe it’s because he’s the very thing that you have been led to believe doesn’t exist — an actively involved Black father who once checked every box on the ‘stereotypical young Black man list’ but overcame all of that.” These stereotypes (and more) are indeed abundantly overcome in Concrete Rose, in a way that feels natural, avoiding the didacticism that characterized The Hate U Give, whose social justice angle lacked the subtlety of this new novel.
A refreshing tenderness suffuses Maverick’s relationships with other male characters, from his friendship with his cousin Dre — who pushes him to give up dealing — to his bonds with his father, his infant son, and even his employer, Mr. Wyatt. “Son, one of the biggest lies ever told is that Black men don’t feel emotions,” Wyatt tells Maverick. “Guess it’s easier to not see us as human when you think we’re heartless.” In a world where inflexible notions of masculinity prevail, the main male characters in Concrete Rose are compassionate and communicative, with a strong moral compass that allows them to advance alternative notions of manhood and thus avoid perpetuating the cycle. “I decided I was gon’ be the kind of father she deserved,” Dre says of his daughter, Andreanna. “I had to man up. That’s what you gotta do, Mav. Man up.”
By contrast, King, a fellow gang member, calls Maverick a “housewife” for staying at home with his young son and refusing to participate in gang activities. “You supposed to be a man do whatever for your family,” King says. “Goddamn, you soft!” King believes that following the rules of the street is the price a man has to pay in a world that is stacked against him. But Dre urges Maverick to break the cycle: “I want you to learn from my mistakes and be a better father than me,” he tells his cousin. “I’m too caught up to get out. You not.”
Concrete Rose is a rich and involving story, and Thomas avoids casting her characters as one-dimensional heroes or villains, choosing instead to explore the circumstances that lead them to make the difficult choices they do in order to survive. The blurred boundary between a right choice and a wrong one means that what society considers right often comes with a steep price. “All a high school diploma did for Ma was help her get two jobs that don’t pay enough,” says Maverick, calling to mind what Lisa told Starr in The Hate U Give: “Sometimes you can do everything right and things will still go wrong. The key is to never stop doing right.”
Thomas makes clear just how much a single mistake can cost. Her characters are faced with decisions that no kids their age should be faced with, and it is fascinating to see how or if they will rise to the challenge. Readers of The Hate U Give will already know what the future brings, but Concrete Rose does a fantastic job as a standalone novel, holding our attention and engaging our curiosity. It also boldly addresses issues of gun violence and teen pregnancy with admirable delicacy for a YA novel.
Thomas has drawn her book’s title from Tupac Shakur’s poem “The Rose That Grew from Concrete”:
Did you hear about the rose that grew
from a crack in the concrete?
Proving nature’s law is wrong it
learned to walk without having feet.
Funny it seems, but by keeping its dreams,
it learned to breathe fresh air.
Long live the rose that grew from concrete
when no one else ever cared.
Tupac could be describing Maverick Carter, who has also defied the odds, challenged assumptions about his nature, and thrived in spite of an unforgiving environment. “Roses, they’re fascinating li’l things,” Wyatt tells Maverick at one point. “Can handle more than folks think. I’ve had roses in full bloom during an ice storm.” The rose motif is an apt one, since Maverick faces challenges that call on him to prune from his life everything that is holding him back from flourishing.