Author: Harvard educated, New York born and bred, African-American novelist and essayist. His fifth novel, The Underground Railroad (2016), was a fictionalised account of a network of secret routes and safe houses in 19th century USA by which slaves from the south escaped to the free northern states and Canada, aided by abolitionists and others sympathetic to their cause. It won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and made Mr Whitehead a household name. The Nickel Boys is his sixth novel.
Premise: In the early 1960s, with Martin Luther King is emerging as a towering figure on the national stage, black teenagers incarcerated in hellish Florida reform school on trivial grounds are “leased out” to local white businessmen for indentured work—slavery by another name—while enduring terrible privation and abuse at the school the rest of the time. Based on the true story, recently uncovered, of a real institution.
Plot: Elwood and Turner struggle to survive oppressive brutality and subjugation. One is relentlessly optimistic, inspired by the words of Dr King, the other not so much. Only one survives. He makes good in New York, and revisits the scene of the crime many years later.
Prose: Up to Mr Whitehead’s usual high standard.
Bottom line: Novels about black Americans during the era of slavery and subsequent Jim Crow period are the US equivalent of holocaust fiction: emotionally draining tales that are challenging to read. As Primo Levi showed, the truth of the holocaust is shocking enough; authorial embellishment is not required. Mr Whitehead adhered to that tenet in The Underground Railroad, which added greatly to its impact on me. In The Nickel Boys, he lets emotion take over at times. I understand why, but took off half a star for it.