The Nickel Boys

Author: Colson Whitehead

Published: July 16, 2019

Publisher: Doubleday

Where I picked up my book: Purchased from an Indie

Key Words: Reform school, Historical Fiction, The Black Experience in Jim Crow/Civil Right Era

My Rating: 5 stars

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My Thoughts:

I LOVED this book and because of the content, that feels hard to say…but I did. This is based on a real reform school in Marianna, Florida that was operated for 111 years and “warped the lives of thousands of children.” Here is more detail if you’re interested. You should definitely be interested-it’s harrowing,  but we should all know what happened there, so please give that article a read. To top it off, the school only just closed in 2011?! What in the actual hell?! Whitehead, after hearing about the devastation that occurred behind those school walls including beatings, deaths, rape and other atrocious things, decided to write a book about it and The Nickel Boys is what it turned into. It is magnificent, telling, devastating…and truly a masterpiece. I finished it over a week ago and I’m still thinking about those boys and their story (and frantically googling about the real school in Florida every chance I get).

I don’t want to say too much because honestly, you just need to read it to appreciate it. And then probably read it again to appreciate it even more. That’s where I’m at. Although I have zero experience with reform school, or being Black in a white world, I did go to an all-women, Catholic school (which I should preface by saying it was NOTHING, NOTHING, NOTHING like this) and I have some thoughts. There is a sense of discipline and control in schools like this. There are structures that must be adhered to and yes, scholastics are very important (in my school at least), but discipline and structure are almost top of the list. There are laws that don’t apply to us as students in a Catholic school and I remember knowing that very well. Nothing ever happened when I was there, but I remember stories of past generations and the types of punishments that were allowed. Again, NOTHING like this, but knuckle slapping with rulers and things of that nature happened in the past. There is a control that the adults in charge think they need to get a handle on early, and rules and discipline are there “for a reason.” Keep in mind-this is only coming from my experience at a relatively well-off, Catholic school that my parents were invested in (both actually with their presence, but also with their wallets). But I could see how a disciplinary reform school could turn into this something horrible really quickly. Although my experience was nothing like the experiences in this book, I can understand what it must have been like for children, especially Black children, to be sent to a reform school that is full of racism and bigotry, into the height on the Civil Rights and Jim Crow Movement in the 1960’s where the school (and world) is segregated, where teachers have formed a corruption circle among themselves with no outside monitoring?! Plus add the dimension that these are “bad kids” in need of discipline. This school is what you get.  What ACTUALLY went on in this school? What laws were being broken? What boy’s souls were being crushed for the rest of their lives? In this book, you’ll get those answers and more. I will never be the same after reading it. It truly crushed me.

The Nickel Boys is not for the faint of heart, but the writing is genius, the plot is immaculate, the details are truthful and succinct and overall, this book will make you think long after you read the last page.

I hope you read this one and if so, come chat with me on Instagram! Find me at @bookishfolk

bookishfolk…read instead.

Manhattan Beach

Author: Jennifer Egan

Published: October 3, 2017

Publisher: Scribner

Where I picked up my book: Library

Key Words: Historical Fiction, History, New York City, Female lead, WWII

My Rating: 3.5 stars

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Synopsis (via Goodreads):

Anna Kerrigan, nearly twelve years old, accompanies her father to visit Dexter Styles, a man who, she gleans, is crucial to the survival of her father and her family. She is mesmerized by the sea beyond the house and by some charged mystery between the two men.

‎Years later, her father has disappeared and the country is at war. Anna works at the Brooklyn Naval Yard, where women are allowed to hold jobs that once belonged to men, now soldiers abroad. She becomes the first female diver, the most dangerous and exclusive of occupations, repairing the ships that will help America win the war. One evening at a nightclub, she meets Dexter Styles again, and begins to understand the complexity of her father’s life, the reasons he might have vanished.

With the atmosphere of a noir thriller, Egan’s first historical novel follows Anna and Styles into a world populated by gangsters, sailors, divers, bankers, and union men. Manhattan Beach is a deft, dazzling, propulsive exploration of a transformative moment in the lives and identities of women and men, of America and the world. It is a magnificent novel by the author of A Visit from the Goon Squad, one of the great writers of our time.

My Thoughts:

This book had been on my radar since it got longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction and then my wife read it and fell in love (she and I read very, VERY different types of books, so this made me put my guard up a bit if I’m being honest lol), but then it was chosen as our city-wide read and I immediately put it onto the reserve list at the library. I should preface this review by saying that Historical Fiction is not something I ever gravitate to. I’m more of a Contemporary Fiction type of person, but I was fully prepared to look outside of my wheelhouse on this one and I’m glad I did. I was excited and although I had heard mixed reviews (either totally raving reviews or “nope” review, it seemed like there was no in-between), I was determined to come to my own conclusions. First, I absolutely loved Anna’s story line and found myself frantically reading though the various other plots in order to get back to Anna’s. It gave me that Rosie the Riveter feeling and I was engrossed. I wanted to don my checkered scarf and blue shirt and join the resistance. I’m always in for a strong, female lead taking on non-traditional roles, and this one sucked me in. And her relationship with her disabled sister brought tears to my eyes more than once. I also loved the research that went into this novel. As a reader, I could tell it was immense and I appreciated it, even though at times, it seemed to bog down the plot rhythm a bit. After reading this, I now completely understand the draw people have to historical fiction. It’s learning…but with a made up, but could be true plot 😉 But in all seriousness, Egan did her research and her descriptions and story were so much stronger for that! With that said, the other plot lines and characters fell a bit short for me and I found myself saying, “Wait…who are we talking about here” more than once. And the mobster/crime boss storyline, I wasn’t invested in at all and it didn’t seem to be as well developed as I would have liked. It was a bit of a challenge for me to see how some of the other characters related to each other…but I didn’t even mind because I just wanted to see what else Anna was up to.

This is a solid, well-researched novel that pulled me in, and at times, left me wanting more. Not more research, not more characters, not more words, but maybe a little less historical fiction and author-researched plot points, and just more fiction. Have you read it? Let me know what you thought!

bookishfolk…read instead.