The Nickel Boys

Even in death the boys were trouble.

The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead, Doubleday 2019

I read stories by Colson Whitehead before and even though I know their subjects are heavy (Black American history, racism), there’s a certain atmosphere to them that still makes them easy to read. Like there’s a layer between the reader and the story, but the reader can feel how fragile it is.

This time it’s about a Correctional Facility (add air quotes at your own convenience) in Florida that was created in times of segregation and still works along those lines when the reader gets there. Entwined with that story are also jumps back and forward in time to show black American lives and the impact incarceration (directly and indirectly) has on them.

What I liked on top of everything else is the nicely hidden away twist: I felt like a numpty to not have picked it up, and that means that it was worked in without any fanfare nor heralded with a complete orchestra. It gives an extra punch in case you were strangely complacent with all the horrors you read.

The Underground Railroad

The first time Caesar approached Cora about running north, she said no.

Watching the series Underground, The Knick and than reading this book, gives you a triangle of black American history. If you’re not a complete dunce, you can recognise that these three are slavery-related, because that’s a large part of black American history. And as I often ask myself with books about ugly subjects; why should you read it? Don’t we know already?

This time the underground railroad to the saver surroundings up north is really an underground railroad, but that doesn’t make an escape easier. Main character Cora is followed through different states and escapes, and even when it looks safe, it doesn’t mean it is. Sometimes the violence against black people is written down so detached, it’s easy to believe all the slavery-wasn’t-horrible stories some people still try to taut. Only for this author to proof them wrong, again and again. This book isn’t just about the violence, it’s about the impact on human lives.

The railroad gives it a slightly fantastical shade, but an escape is an escape, whatever way used. Sometimes the author veers off a little in style, rails to a dead end, but Cora’s story needs to be seen through.

And if people know already, even about South Carolina, even about the mass sterilisations, maybe they can just pass this story on for those that don’t.

The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead, Doubleday 2016