“The boys could have been many things had they not been ruined by that place.”

Brown Baggers book group met virtually on Thursday, May 20 at noon to discuss The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. The group was introduced to Whitehead’s style, which bounces between realism and fantasy, through The Underground Railroad in February 2018. This latest novel was more grounded in reality, without speculative or fantastic elements. Yet one reader commented that by focusing on power and control, Whitehead was once again writing about slavery — “writing about slavery without writing about slavery.” Here we have more layers of racism to explore: caste and segregation, “subtle” racism, “gloves off” racism. 

While Colson said he did not want to write another “heavy book” after The Underground Railroad, he could not avoid telling this story. It is based on an actual reform school that finally closed, after 100+ years of operation, in 2011. Readers will find brutality, reminiscent of The Underground Railroad, in The Nickel Boys — some laid bare on the page and difficult to swallow, and some left unsaid, but not unknown.

Elwood, Jack, and other Nickel Boys were not only subject to corporal punishment, hard labor, a poor education, and sexual assault, but also the psychological agony of living a false life at the Academy. The idea of falsehood was so compelling, readers remarked that it stood out as a central idea. There are people who are not able to live as their true selves. Instead they must preserve their true self (somewhere deep inside) through the ever-elusive protective goal of “fitting in with society.” A question that readers might ponder is this: what kind of life can be lived if that life requires deceit? Who in our own society are we burdening with the self-preserving obligation of deceit?

Elwood and Jack, described by Whitehead as, “two different parts of my personality,” are certainly nuanced, complicated further by their grim circumstances at the Academy, which some readers argue create allowances for behaviors/morality. Some characters, like Griff, sparked debate between members: was Griff a good guy with integrity and his own compass? A bully? Both? Some argued Griff was as good as he could be, given his situation. Others argued he had less self-control and was instead driven by mental limitations. We discussed who was a “good guy” and who was a “bad guy” and found it easier to pinpoint multiple villains: not only individual people, but also institutions. 

Power was a central theme of our discussion. Members noted: if you give someone overwhelming power, there is going to be abuse. It’s inevitable, because we live in a racist, prejudiced society. We were honing in on the degradation of the human conscience; that little voice that says, “you’re better than them. Those people are throwaways. They deserve it.” Without accountability, regulation, and checks and balances, shocking slips ensue. Some of the abuses we found in The Nickel Boys reminded us of the treatment of the Appalachia people from Go Down The Mountain, as in both novels, a powerful group took away the inherent power of human dignity from another group. 

One interesting thread of conversation we tackled as a group was how Whitehead treated women in this novel. The quick answer is that writers are sometimes penned in, given the subjects they choose to pursue — this was a reform school for boys, so the female experience wasn’t going to “fit.” But the more complicated question is: were women characterized “poorly” in this novel? For example, in a stereotypical fashion? As art teachers, wives, maids, and beneficiaries? As predictable, and predictably helpless, figures? 

Last, the ending. While there is nothing otherworldly in this book, the end was enough to upend all of our readers. It will not be spoiled here, but perhaps the following reactions will entice others into picking up the novel: 

Readers described the end of the novel as shocking. No one saw it coming, although one savvy reader did note one single clue that helped tip her off just the slightest. Another reader confessed reading the end three times, finally taking the third time around to really scour the pages at a snail’s pace, just to make sure her eyes were not deceiving her! We did have readers who understood the end logistically, but didn’t buy into the effect. For some, the way Whitehead chose to end the novel did not provide greater insight into the characters’ inner lives, plights, or quests, and instead they were left with doubts. In a way, this upended everything they’d previously known about a character, and forced them to rework a supposed understanding to accommodate a last minute puzzle. Others simply found it different, but in an interesting way. If you’ve read The Nickel Boys, what did you think about the ending? Will you share your thoughts in the comments below, without spoiling the ending for others? 

The Brown Baggers will meet again virtually on Thursday, June 17 at noon to discuss Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. Please email kfarrell@jmrl.org for details on how to participate from your computer or phone.

Books Mentioned:

Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead

Zone One by Colson Whitehead

The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

Films Mentioned:

Deadly Secrets: The Lost Children of Dozier (2016) – streaming on PBS

Links:

CBS Sunday Morning interview with Colson Whitehead on The Nickel Boys

Roxane Gay’s Book Club: How Colson Whitehead’s “The Nickel Boys” Is Not Green Book

NY Times: In ‘The Nickel Boys,’ Colson Whitehead Depicts a Real-Life House of Horrors

NPR: Florida’s Dozier School for Boys:  A True Horror Story

Wikipedia: Florida School for Boys

The Famuan: Survivor shares haunting tales from notorious Dozier school

Noor: The Black Boys of Dozier (photo essay) by Nina Berman

The Economist: How housing descrimination and white flight segregated America

City Journal: The Truth About White Flight

Chicago Tribune: Gentrification isn’t America’s urban scourge. Poverty is.

Public Source: New white flight and urban displacement: Study looks beyond gentrification  in Pittsburgh region

Atlanta Black Star: Gentrification: Reversal of Historic White Flight Is Creating a New Black Flight

The Atlantic: Chicago’s Awful Divide by Alana Semuels

“I won’t tell you what kind of man your daddy was. I’ll let my story do that and you be the judge.”

Brown Baggers book group met virtually on Thursday, April 15 at noon to discuss Go Down the Mountain by Meredith Battle. The novel promises to be a coming of age and love story, a story of family dysfunction and loss, and also the story of community: Virginia families displaced by the government as land is siphoned to create a National Park. Many of us have been intrigued by the chimneys scattered throughout Shenandoah National Park; these are the stately scars, all that remain of the countless houses taken and burned. Some of us have seen the resettlement house offerings in Madison county, still standing. The novel is close enough to home that we were eager to get started, and as we read, all of us enjoyed the local references littered throughout the narrative. And yet having the book set in our backyard was not enough to win us over. A majority of readers found this book disappointing, melodramatic, surface level, and at times, amateurish. 

That being said, we were disappointed for the best reason: we wanted to know more, and Battle’s story did not dredge deeply enough into the historical content promised to us as readers. We were not satisfied with the innumerable plot points meant to excite and shock us; we wanted to know more intimately about the experience of displacement, or the economic or social gains the state and nation had to gain from creating the park. We were fascinated by the Virginia Colony for the Feebleminded — just as we were intrigued by the snake charming, children begging in burlap, a state-abducted infant, shoot-outs and human-destroying dogs, and the love triangle to boot. There was plenty of intrigue here — but sadly, not enough deep-diving to quench our thirst for understanding, or our curiosity to know these characters on a human level.

While the sentimental among us enjoyed the loose structure of the novel — a mother writing to her daughter to finally reveal “the truth” of her lineage — we also agreed this strategy would have been more affecting if the daughter was old enough to find the box of letters herself. We could then get to know her as a character and witness the story twofold: as it happened to our narrator, and then how her daughter processed it. Not only would this have focused the story and brought more richness to the characters, as they thought about and interacted with one another, but it also would have introduced a generational element to the story, which many of our readers enjoyed recently in Red At The Bone

In the end, some of the Brown Baggers learned for the first time about the reality of families being forced off of their own land so that Shenandoah could be created. Some were not familiar at all with the devastating reality of being stripped of not only your land, but also your livelihood. Some were also introduced to the evil of eugenics and forced sterilization. We all agreed that this book — while not our favorite — is now driving us to pursue more information. As we continue to read as a group, a recurring comment is, “I never knew….” Month after month, we are unearthing truths that have always existed, but that are new to us. Whether we’ve contributed to the writing of history, or just ingested the often unilateral narrative, our reading is nudging us to find another version. Another version, and another, and another. We thank Battle for her story, full of twists, turns, and to her credit, one surprise after another. We also thank her for sparking us to read and learn more. 

The Brown Baggers will meet again virtually on Thursday, May 20 at noon to discuss The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. Please email kfarrell@jmrl.org for details on how to participate from your computer or phone.

Books Mentioned:

Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia by Steven Stoll

“Answer At Once”: Letters of Mountain Families in Shenandoah National Park, 1934-1938 ed. Katrina Powell

The Anguish of Displacement: The Politics of Literacy in the Letters of Mountain Families in Shenandoah National Park by Katrina Powell

Writing Appalachia: An Anthology by Tess Lloyd 

Contrasted to books by Lee Smith

Links:

The Displaced People of Shenandoah National Park: a ArcGIS Story Map (sponsored by Greene Co. VA) – included history, photos, video, and modern interpretations

Oral Histories of the CCC in Shenandoah – collected by the NPS

Living In Virginia: The Iris Still Blooms (YouTube) – part of a video series by VA Public Media, this section covers the displacement

Shenandoah National Park Oral History Collection (solid state held at JMU) – part of an archival collection which includes oral history from folks living in the mountains before the creation of the park (materials accessible online)

Monument to Families Displaced by Shenandoah National Park Unveiled – Daily Progress

Blue Ridge Heritage Project Monument – Homepage (NPS)

Shenandoah Secrets: Pork, Propaganda, and the Creation of a COOL National Park – Lisa Provence, The Hook

Shenandoah National Park History and Culture – National Park Service

Shenandoah National Park: From Idea to Reality – National Park Service

“Man, you know how it goes. One day chicken. Next day bone.”

This month, two Central library book groups met virtually to discuss Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson, our JMRL Same Page author of 2021. Books on Tap met March 4, and Brown Baggers met March 11. This post examines some of the similarities and differences of those conversations, as well as information and revelations from the author. JMRL was fortunate enough to host Jacqueline Woodson for a Same Page discussion event on March 16. 

Red at the Bone immerses readers into the minds and bodies of a large cast of characters that span three generations. Woodson brings memory, history, and generational trauma and inheritance to life through her rich, poetic language. Readers can expect a nonlinear, layered narrative told through a collage of senses, presented in a taut, spare work. Plot-wise, Woodson writes with honesty, heartbreak, and immediacy about her characters (teenage Melody, her mom Iris and dad Aubrey, her grandparents Sabe, Po Boy, and CathyMarie) as they face sex, pregnancy, parenthood, education, poverty, wealth, and racial trauma and healing. Both our book groups noted that, though the work is fiction, they learned a lot from the book, especially about the Tulsa Massacre of 1921. Both groups were struck by the similarities between the Tulsa Massacre, which destroyed 35 square blocks of businesses known at the time as “Black Wall Street” and the razing of Charlottesville’s Vinegar Hill neighborhood. 

Books on Tap spent time discussing the title, identifying moments in the book when it was mentioned explicitly or alluded to. To be “red at the bone” may mean the person or situation is not quite complete — still in progress — like the bits of chicken close to the bone, that don’t quite get cooked. The words “red” and “bone” in close proximity made others think of emotional rawness and vulnerability, a person’s core truth and essence. One reader pointed out that the book deals with race and class, and how people are different, but also similar; when we get beneath our own skin, we’re all “red at the bone.” 

Brown Baggers focused on characters, especially Iris. Many identified her as the “main character” as she was the natural link between the generations (Sabe’s daughter, Melody’s mother). Some felt they’d had enough of Iris, but others wanted more of her, as she was one of the more complex characters of the story. Readers found the issue of Iris’ maternal nature (or lack thereof) worthy of discussion. Like other threads, Iris going to college was a gray matter — was she abandoning her daughter, or advancing herself? Woodson says, wholeheartedly, that Iris was not abandoning her daughter; she has the resources to make other decisions. 

In her discussion of Iris, Jacqueline said this: “You may not like her but you will never forget her. I couldn’t come to any of my characters with judgement, including Iris.” In fact, there is some Iris in all of us, namely, the hunger we see in her. We all have that hunger, and we either bottle it up, which may come back to haunt us as we inadvertently pass it on to our children, or we go out and, essentially, satiate that hunger. Woodson continued by saying: it’s time to look at our own dreams, what societal norms are at play, and how we’re responding. In reflecting, it seems that “hunger” may be an underlying feeling woven throughout the work (connect back to the title discussions, for example, which came largely from a discussion of food and appetite). Two chapters before the close of the book, we read Melody’s account of the day she was born: “And I remember when they finally placed me at her breast, how I latched on so tight and hard, there was fear in her eyes. How absolutely hungry I was once. For her. For her. For her.” (p.186). 

Moving out from Iris, readers considered Iris’ parents, Melody’s grandparents. Books on Tap questioned if it was right of Iris’ parents to support her, and even fight for her ability to be so separate from her daughter? We realized Iris’ parents didn’t push her to be maternal, they gave her an “out” — whether that be good, bad, or negligible. The Brown Baggers considered how Iris created expectations for Melody in her absence. As Melody was raised by her father and grandparents, we wondered if the expectation to be different — to not get pregnant — would result in Melody feeling pressure to not repeat history, or in resentment toward Iris. Once again, Woodson was having the same discussion. When an audience question came in asking if Melody was a “surrogate” for Iris (i.e. a do-over, as the Brown Baggers questioned/theorized), Woodson said no, Melody was her own person, not a stand-in for Iris, or anyone else. That being said, Melody is participating in the narrative, which is heavily saturated with ideas of legacy and inheritance, interconnectedness of family members, and tradition. Melody’s story — both her uniqueness and the way in which she carries the stories of others — continues the family line. Jacqueline also noted that in this novel, she was interested in shifting the idea of what family actually “is.” Jacqueline questioned: what is a broken home? and then noted, I’ve never seen a broken home; Woodson is challenging the assumption that single parent households and non-nuclear family structures are “broken.” 

Clearly, Red at the Bone offered plenty of fodder for discussion, from its energy, to its structure and format, to the characters, and the sweeping, consequential time period covered. 

Books on Tap will meet again virtually on Thursday, April 1 at 7 pm to discuss Elevation by Stephen King. The Brown Baggers will meet again virtually on Thursday, April 15 at noon to discuss Go Down the Mountain by Meredith Battle. Please email kfarrell@jmrl.org for details on how to participate from your computer or phone.

Books Mentioned:

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

Urban Renewal and the End of Black Culture in Charlottesville, Virginia: An Oral History of Vinegar Hill by James Robert Saunders and Renae Nadine Shackelford

Movies Mentioned: 

That World is Gone: Race and Displacement in a Southern Virginia Town (2010)

Links:

1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Digital Exhibit

Oklahoma News 4 – Search for victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre expected to continue this summer

Zinn Project – May 31, 1921: Tulsa Massacre