books and reading

The Nickel Boys

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I buy books on Amazon for my Kindle when they are cheap. Somehow, I ended up buying this one about a month ago, having no idea it was going to win the Pulitzer. Did you know only four authors have won two Pultizers? Booth Tarkington, William Faulker, John Updike, and Colson Whitehead. I was shocked that it was so few, but also of who wasn’t on the list… Steinbeck, Hemingway, Toni Morrison to start.

I read The Underground Railroad before it won the Pultizer and enjoyed it quite a bit. It was a tough read, but worth it. When I heard amazing things about this one, I bought it when the price dropped and added to my ever-growing “to read” category on my kindle (currently the home of 90+ books). Once it won, though, I bumped it to the top and am very glad I did.

The story is a fictionalized account of a home for boys in Florida where juveniles are sent to “rehabilitate.” The real school is the Dozier Home for Boys which operated for over 100 years. Once closed, authorities found the unmarked graves of over 50 boys and noted over 100 deaths. This story follows Elwood, who is sent there just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but is otherwise a good kid with a bright future.

Not only is this story captivating, but the writing is top-notch. Whitehead’s language is subtle and understated, but powerful and sticks with you. I can see why he won again. The two books I’ve read of his follow a similar concept: fictionalized accounts of real events/places, but not only do these accounts create meaning for the reader by putting the reader inside the environment, but Whitehead also creates emotions by letting the reader see the nasty side of it all. Some books, literally, whitewash events. Books like American Dirt, for example. It’s impossible to get inside the psyche of a person of a certain culture unless you are that culture. A white person’s perspective of the Underground Railroad would be just words, emptiness. And although Whitehead didn’t live through slavery, his experience is much different than a white person’s and should be afforded the respect and the benefit of the doubt that he (and any “own voices” author) can capture his culture best. That’s what I love about his books. I’m getting to see a side of people that is honest and real and raw and genuine, and I respect that.

books and reading

The Underground Railroad

Sometimes simplicity is better than complexity. And this book is a perfect example of this idea. Last year, I read two books by Toni Morrison. She is second to none, honestly. However, her writing is so dense that it takes a long time to get through her books. And this isn’t a bad thing at all. I am in awe of her command of the written word. Gabriel Garcia Marquez is another author that comes to mind for being complex. The language is meant to be savored.

But there are times when language distracts from the purity of the story, so simple is better. And I say this with tremendous respect and appreciation for the simplicity because sometimes the story itself needs to shine. This is what I kept thinking while reading The Underground Railroad. And it’s not that the author, Colson Whitehead, isn’t an amazing writer, because he absolutely is. But the language was interesting, but reigned in and appropriate, which allowed for the characters and plot to be the main focus. Sometimes less is better.

The story starts with Cora living as a slave on the Randall plantation. Quickly, her friend Caesar asks her to escape with him, knowing full well that if they are caught their punishment will be horrific. However, they take the risk and run for the Underground Railroad. Escaped slaves were often hunted down by slave catchers, and this book explores that. A man named Ridgeway has made it his mission to find them. Cora has a variety of life experiences, getting tastes of freedom then getting them ripped away. She learns who she can trust simply by the look in their eyes and their posture. No matter what her situation, she tries to find the best in it, always looking behind her, though.

This book doesn’t mince words when it comes to the terrible life most slaves led. Their punishments are beyond harsh. Their lives reduced to a simple existence. This is why the language Whitehead uses is so important. This story is too important to tell with clever turns of phrase and elaborate, unnecessary details. Cora’s life and soul jumps off the page from the moment we meet her. As hard as this book is to stomach, it was beautifully written and absolutely worth reading.