The Nickel Boys ~ A Capsule Book Review

The Nickel Boys ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Colson Whitehead’s novel, The Nickel Boys, won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It’s a story about a fictional (but based in reality) boys’ reformatory in Florida, the Nickel Academy, in the early 1960s.

The principal character is a black teen named Elwood Curtis. Elwood lives with—and is raised by—his grandmother, Harriet, since his parents have run off and left him. Harriet works as a maid in a hotel.

Elwood is a “good” boy who doesn’t get into trouble the way some of his friends do. He works in a small store that sells newspapers, cigarettes, and candy and he understands the value of an education. When he is riding in a stolen car that he doesn’t even know is stolen, he is arrested and ends up being sentenced to the Nickel Academy.

Elwood is out of his depth at Nickel, meaning he doesn’t belong there. He meets all kinds of other boys, some of them friendly and others bullying and cruel. They all have one thing in common: they are all part of a cruel and unjust system that punishes young people, black and white, who haven’t yet reached adulthood. Boys are routinely mistreated (inadequate food), beaten, locked in solitary confinement or a “sweat box,” or sexually assaulted. Those who commit a serious enough transgression might be beaten and tortured to death and, after their bodies are furtively buried, reported to have “run off.”

When state inspectors come to Nickel for an inspection, management puts on a good show to demonstrate that they are taking good care of their charges, even to the point of serving good food with ice cream for dessert (on that day only). Elwood Curtis has a plan. He has been keeping a written record of what conditions are really like at Nickel and how people are really being treated. He hopes to slip the written record to one of the inspectors without any of the Nickel employees seeing. He’s taking a dangerous risk; if he gets caught, it could mean the end of him.

The Nickel Boys is a good book, but I think you will agree it’s not a great book. It’s the companion piece to a novel from three years ago called The Underground Railroad, which also won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. (Colson Whitehead is one of only four writers to win two Pulitzer Prizes for fiction in their careers; the others are Booth Tarkington, William Faulkner, and John Updike.) Both novels deal with black issues while embracing universal themes of belonging, oneness, isolation, and functioning in a world that is very often unjust to anybody of any skin color.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

The Underground Railroad ~ A Capsule Book Review

The Underground Railroad ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead is this year’s winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and, finally, the winner is once again about American life. It’s set in pre-Civil War America, when Southern plantation owners were allowed by law to own slaves as property, while sympathizers in the North and elsewhere viewed slavery as an abomination and were willing to do all they could to aid black slaves in their quest for freedom. In these dangerous times, the “underground railroad” sprang up, a series of rails, sometimes crude, constructed under the ground, to give slaves a means of escape from their sometimes-cruel owners. The people who built and maintained the underground railroad, the “station masters,” were often white men. They risked their lives every minute they aided slaves in escaping.

The main character of The Underground Railroad is a young slave girl named Cora. At the beginning of the book, she lives on the Randall plantation in Georgia, where vicious cruelty toward the slaves is the order of the day. Running away, is, of course, a terrible offense in the eyes of the plantation owners. Slaves who run away are caught and when they are brought back they are tortured and killed as an example to the other slaves.

A young man named Caesar gives Cora the idea of running away. At first she doesn’t want to risk it or even think about it, but when she gets a terrible beating for coming to the aid of a small boy, she decides she must run or die. Her mother before her, Mabel, ran away when Cora was only about ten and they never heard from her again. Everybody on the Randall plantation holds Mabel up as an example of what is possible. Cora has feelings of resentment toward her mother for abandoning her at such a young age. (We learn at the end of the book the ironic truth of what really happened to Mabel.)

After Cora’s harrowing escape from the Randall plantation, she is living in a black community in South Carolina under the name of Bessie Carpenter. She lives in a dormitory with lots of other runaway slaves, but there are no beatings and the living conditions are much better than on the plantation. A “slave catcher” by the name of Ridgeway is after her, though, especially determined to catch her and return her to the plantation because it is believed that her mother, Mabel, got away from him; he can’t let Cora humiliate him in the same way. In trying to escape from Ridgeway, Cora spends months in a stifling attic space in the home of a sympathizer.

After years of running and living in fear that she will finally be caught, Cora ends up on the Valentine farm in Indiana, home to a hundred or so runaways. She has books to read and sympathetic friends here, and life and is not so cruel and hard. Everybody who lives on the farm knows, though, that they live a fragile existence and that hostile forces are aligned against them. The slave catcher Ridgeway, though temporarily sidelined, is not about to give up the search for Cora as long as he is alive. The two of them will have a final fateful encounter before the story ends.

There have been lots of books and movies about slavery days and about how slaves were beaten and generally mistreated and sold at the whim of their owners. The Underground Railroad is a familiar story, but it’s a story that never ceases to be interesting in the same way that stories of World War II are interesting and compelling. No matter how terrible Cora’s life is as a slave and then as a runaway, she never loses hope that she can have a better life and live free. It’s a story, then, about hope and never giving up.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp