Book Review: Hey, White Girl
Reviewed by Madeline Barbush
A bittersweet tale of growing pains, race, and family
Judith Bice’s Hey, White Girl tells the bittersweet tale of a young woman grappling with change in every facet of her life. Cultural and personal change are at the center of this YA novel for each of its characters.
It is 1969 and Virginia’s schools are finally integrating, and Nell must attend a predominantly Black high school. Her brother, Donald, is in his final year of school, and he must either go to college or face the Vietnam draft. Nell’s mother and father handle these cultural shifts quite differently, and Nell begins to see where each of them stands politically and morally.
Throughout the novel, Nell Randolph looks back on her formative years as a teenager and reflects honestly and openly on the life she lived during such a conflicting time in history and at home.
Early on in the tale it seems as though Bice would be offering us a classic coming-of-age story—a thought-provoking and interesting one at that. Nell feels like she is a step behind everyone else and begins to experience the normal growing pains we all have had. She confesses to us, “The list of what I didn’t know kept growing longer.” Through constant confessions and honest self-exploration, Bice makes Nell a lovable heroine who we can genuinely pull for.
The intensity of Nell’s life challenges increases gradually, and by presenting us with “normal” teenager issues at first, Bice makes Nell’s later issues—like offending a new Black friend by her ignorance of the Black struggle—seem like just another issue in the life of a teenager. This is not to say that Bice makes it seem insignificant or juvenile, but instead she puts it in terms of a young person’s life and in that way, she makes experiencing this period in history feel so real.
Issues like race and politics creep into Nell’s everyday life and it’s something she must confront in the same way as she does the mean popular girls or a new crush. Bice never makes a white savior of Nell, but she does grace her character with the desire to be a better friend, daughter, and sister.
Hey, White Girl contains so many golden nuggets of truth to hold onto. In one moment Nell reflects on a conflict with Venetia, a Black friend, and thinks to herself: “But my white presence reminded Venetia that my people held the power that made the decisions for her people. My white face had made her feel diminished and I didn’t know what to do with that.”
She never claims to know the answer, but she takes responsibility for learning and understanding her friends’ struggles, instead of trying to solve it immediately and make it all go away. When you’re used to reading stories about race where the author tries so hard to tie everything up in a pretty ribbon, it’s refreshing to read a narrative where the author is comfortable leaving issues unsolved.
Cultural changes will come. If you refuse to adapt, it could very well ruin you. Nell’s story is timeless, but particularly important now. When so many of us are busy trying to prove that we are not the type of white person who is ignorant of their privilege, Nell is communicating with us how we can move forward earnestly toward progression.
Publisher: Atmosphere Press
Genre: Young Adult / Historical Fiction / Coming of Age
Print Length: 322 pages
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