The Nickel Boys is the story of Elwood Curtis. It is the early 1960s and he is a fan of the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King Jr – it appeals to his innate sense of right and wrong and if he can just keep doing the right thing, everything will be fine.
It’s not. He, while trying to get to his college-level classes that he is taking whilst still in high school, hitches a ride with someone who’s just stolen a car. He gets sent to a reform school, Nickel in the book, but based on Florida’s Dozier School for Boys. Elwood becomes friends with Turner, a boy who has come back for his second time.
Their friendship is good and realistic and also a metaphor for how to live responsibly: do you always stand up for what is good and right (Elwood) or do you do what you have to to get by (Turner)? What is the better way to live? The book is not always clear.
It also brought home the precariousness of being Black in the South during and before the Civil Rights Movement, and not for the first time. If you’ve ever seen pictures of Emmett Till, you know how precarious life was for Black Southerners. But I mourned for Elwood and his intelligence and his promise, getting sent to a reform school where terrible things happen because he hitched a ride with the wrong person.
I read The Nickel Boys in one sitting, basically, getting up only to eat dinner. The prose is good and the story is tight. Highly, highly recommended.
The Underground Railroad was, as we all learned in history class, the network of people who helped slaves escape the American South. In Whitehead’s book, the railroad is a real thing, with tracks and trains running at irregular intervals to which people away to the next station.
Cora is a third-generation slave who decides to use the railroad to escape once it becomes clear that rape is in her immediate future. She runs from Georgia to the Carolinas, to Tennessee, to Indiana to show all of the different ways to be enslaved: plantation labor, in the city (the work program she’s in turns out to be part of a larger eugenics plan), hiding in a small nook in a hot summer attic for weeks on end.
She’s pursued by Ridgeway, a slave catcher by nature. He’s evil and wears a necklace of human ears to show that he’s also somewhat deranged.
There’s death all over this book. Cora kills a young man who is part of a search party that temporarily catches up with her and her two fellow escapees. Ridgeway kills so many people as he hunts Cora. The town where she hides in the attic regularly lynches anyone even suspected of helping blacks.
Slavery and racism are ugly, violent, brutal things. The Underground Railroad makes that clear. It makes me, the white reader, feel guilty and uncomfortable. And it should. Slavery is one of the foundational sins of America, something we have never fully atoned for. Listening to its stories, bearing witness to something I’ve been taught to look away from is a start. But only a start.