Book Review of The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead’s latest novel The Nickel Boys is set during the civil rights movement in Florida. Though his work is fictional, Whitehead says he was inspired to write it after learning about the Dozier School for Boys which operated in Marianna, Florida from 1900-2011.

Elwood, the book’s main character, is an idealistic black teenager. His prize possession is a record of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches. Even though Elwood tries to do the right things–get good grades, stay away from troublemakers in the neighborhood–it seems that society is out to get him.

Besides his grandmother who raised him, almost no one else in the black community wants Elwood to succeed. The staff at the hotel where his grandmother works resents him sitting around reading comic books and the Hardy Boys so much that they trick him into “winning” a dish washing competition. His prize is a set of encyclopedias a salesman left at the hotel. After lugging the volumes home, Elwood realizes that except for the first volume, all the others have blank pages.

The ultimate betrayal of Elwood by another black man occurs when he tries to hitchhike on his way to his first college class. Though Elwood doesn’t know it, the driver stole the car and when they are stopped by a white policeman Elwood is also assumed to be guilty. He’s sent to Nickel Academy, a so-called reform school for young men.

At Nickel Elwood learns that the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. mean nothing in society’s corrupt justice system. Listening to Dr. King, Elwood has come to believe that he is “somebody” and that he “must walk the streets of life everyday with this sense dignity and this sense of somebody-ness.” At Nickel, the boys, especially the black ones, are nobody.

Elwood’s attempts to treat others with dignity makes him step in when he sees a smaller boy being beaten by two bigger ones. All the boys involved are sent to the “White House,” a shed on the academy grounds where one of the supervisors, a white man named Spencer, beats each boy. Elwood is beaten so badly that the beating embeds parts of his denim pants in his skin and he’s sent to the academy’s hospital. Elwood tells one of the other boys in the hospital that he still thinks blacks can stand up for themselves thanks to the civil rights movement. The other boy, named Turner, replies, “that sh-t barely works out there– [in the outside world] what do you think it’s going to do in here?”

Despite the injustice the boys at Nickel experience, author Colson Whitehead also shows that friendship and community can survive in horrible circumstances. Spencer and Elwood become friends while in the hospital together, where Spencer cheers Elwood up with jokes. He also helps Elwood out by recommending him for a job that allows the two boys to get out of Nickel for a while to deliver supplies that are supposed to go to the black boys but are resold. Spencer describes Elwood as “sturdy,” and trusts him far more than the other boys. He shares things he’s heard with Elwood, like the fact that Spencer has fixed a fight with a white boy against a black one so the white boy has to win. Unfortunately the black boy Griff forgets to throw the match and is taken to a special spot for black boys only where two oaks have iron rings stabbed into their bark and boys are horsewhipped. Griff never returns. Whitehead emphasizes the sense of community the black boys have for each other: “He [Griff] was all of them in one black body that night in the ring, and all of them when the white men took him out back to those two iron rings.”

In addition to the novel’s great themes of injustice and community, I really admired Whitehead’s writing style. I loved how he managed to convey an important story without wasting one word. Many authors seem to feel like they have to write 500 pages whether or not all those pages are necessary. The Nickel Boys is an example of what I want my own writing to be–both succinct and profound. The ending was so powerful that I needed tissues. I highly recommend this book.

 

 

Book Review of Anna of Kleve: The Princess in the Portrait by Alison Weir

Anna of Kleve is the fourth book in Alison Weir’s Six Tudor Queens series, and the most controversial. In the novel, Weir suggests that Anna had a child before her marriage to King Henry VIII. The author bases her conclusion on the words of Henry VIII, who told his advisors “I have felt her belly and her breasts, and thereby, as I can judge, she should be no maid.”

Yet Anna professed to have no knowledge of how children were conceived. We know also that Henry became displeased with the portrait upon which he based his decision to marry Anna. He claimed that the portrait (see below) flattered her too much. Did he suspect that she had borne a child and used this as another reason for setting her aside? There is no way to know for certain. What is certain is that whatever he may have suspected, Henry VIII placed more emphasis on a precontract of marriage Anna’s father had made with the Duke of Lorraine’s son. He claimed that the contract was not resolved, so the marriage had to be annulled.

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Portrait of Anna of Kleve by Hans Holbein, 1539

Although there have been protests about Weir’s choice to make Anna a mother before her marriage, I feel that Weir exercised a historical novelist’s prerogative to speculate on what might have happened in the past. I would not use this interpretation of Anna as absolute fact. As Weir states in her author’s note at the end of the novel, she wondered what Henry VIII’s comments meant and decided to use her imagination.

Even without the controversy, Anna is a fascinating character. Growing up in Germany, she received no formal education except reading and writing. Most of her time was spent with devotions and needlework. Unlike some of Henry’s queens who spoke multiple languages, Anna spoke only German. Obviously, this put her at a disadvantage at the English court.

Despite her lack of education, Anna displayed remarkable intelligence throughout the novel. When the king fell in love with Katheryn Howard, Anna privately grieved that she would no longer enjoy the privileges she had as queen, but she publicly agreed that the marriage was invalid. By going along with what Henry VIII wanted, she literally kept her head and protected her homeland which might otherwise have warred with the much richer country of England. Anna was richly rewarded for her cooperation. She received 4,000 pounds per year and four houses of her own from the king. In addition, she was referred to as the king’s sister.

Anna enjoyed a certain amount of freedom for a sixteenth century single woman. She delighted in playing hostess to visitors, including the king, at her various residences. When rumors circulated that Henry might remarry Anna after discovering Queen Katheryn’s adultery, Anna was dismayed. “She did not want to be restored as queen, especially after what had happened to Katheryn Howard, or be be the wife to a prematurely aged man who was not in the best of health, fond of Henry as she was.” Of course, Anna was not made queen again and the king married Katharine Parr instead.

After the death of Henry VIII, Anna became much more preoccupied with money. Neither King Edward VI nor Queen Mary I were nearly as generous with her as Henry VIII was. Until the end of her life, she had to cut back on expenses and sometimes struggled to pay her staff.

I recommend Anna of Kleve to fans of the Tudor period. Anna is an interesting and relatable character. Even though I knew that she would be cast aside by Henry VIII yet manage to live, the writing was so compelling that I was on the edge of my seat whenever a major event occurred. Author Alison Weir provides a fascinating glimpse into the thoughts and feelings of one of the wisest Tudor queens.

Note: English sources refer to Anna as Anne of Cleves. Yet she signed her name Anna and Kleve is the German name of her hometown. Katheryn Howard is also referred to in other sources as Catherine Howard.

 

 

Book Review of The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

The Island of Sea Women is a story of friendship, heartache, and forgiveness. Young-sook and Mi-ja are childhood best friends. As they grow up on Jeju, an island that is now part of South Korea, Young-sook’s mother teaches them to dive. The girls became haenyeo–female divers who catch sea creatures like abalone, sea urchins, and even octopus to sell and help feed their families. Experienced haenyeo have no oxygen tanks but can stay submerged in the sea for twenty or more meters.

Lisa See’s novel covers both the friendship of the two girls and the history of Jeju from 1938 to 2008. Young-sook is the daughter of a respected haenyeo chief, but Mi-ja is an orphan. Though Young-sook’s mother shows Mi-ja kindness, others in their village do not. In 1938, the Japanese occupy Korea, and Mi-ja’s father worked for the Japanese. Thus Mi-ja is marked as a collaborator–a curse that haunts her throughout her life.

Early on, the girls learn the dangers of the sea. As Young-sook’s mother explains, “Every woman who enters the sea carries a coffin on her back. In this world, in the undersea world, we tow the burdens of a hard life. We are crossing between life and death every day.” Both Mi-ja and Young-sook will lose people they care about in the sea.

In the late 1940s, however, the young women learn that being on land can be equally dangerous. Young-sook and Mi-ja are now both married and have children. As they are living their lives, the Japanese are replaced by American occupiers. Eventually the desire for Americans and the Koreans they’ve placed in charge to root out communism causes unimaginable tragedy for the people of Jeju, and the friendship of Young-sook and Mi-ja is tested like never before.

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Photo of a haenyeo April 17, 2007 by karendotcom127 https://www.flickr.com/photos/karendotcom127/463077860/

I enjoyed learning about the non-traditional gender roles on Jeju. Men stayed home with the children while women dove or worked in the fields to gather food. As Young-sook’s daughters points out later in the book, in some cultures Jeju men would be called wives. I had not heard about the haenyeo before reading this book and have so much respect for their skills. Lisa See’s beautiful descriptions of the world underwater made me feel as though I was right there with the divers.

If you’ve read any of her other books, then you know that See is an expert at depicting female relationships. Young-sook and Mi-ja stand by each other through sorrows, such as the death of Young-sook’s mother early in the novel. Yet the events of history and their own actions/inactions begin to tear them apart. See explores the importance of forgiveness and what each woman loses without it.

Though I thoroughly enjoyed learning about Jeju and its history of strong women, I would not recommend this as a relaxing read. Pick up The Island of Sea Women if you are interested in the subject matter, but keep in mind that history is often ugly.

Review of Jane Seymour The Haunted Queen by Alison Weir

In the case of England’s Queen Jane Seymour, there is little evidence for historians like Alison Weir to go on since Jane did not leave letters behind. Jane is therefore the perfect subject for a historical novel like Weir’s Jane Seymour The Haunted Queen. In this novel, Weir makes a little-known and seemingly dull queen come to life.

We see Jane first at her beloved home, Wulfhall. From an early age, she learns that life for women in the sixteenth century is often unfair. Her father has an affair with his daughter-in-law, but the girl is the one who is sent away to a nunnery. Jane also sees how her mother suffers as she pretends that the affair never happened. Obviously, married women have few choices.

When Jane goes to court to serve Queen Katherine of Aragon, she learns that even queens have little power in their marriages. Katherine is putting on a brave front, but Henry VIII is in love with Anne Boleyn. He eventually breaks with the Catholic Church in order to marry Anne and puts aside Katherine and his daughter Mary.

Jane serves Katherine joyfully because they are both devout Catholics. Weir even has Jane consider becoming a nun, though there is no proof of this. Yet even the scant historical evidence suggests that Jane was sincere in her faith. When Henry tires of the reform-minded Anne and shows an interest in Jane, she hopes that she can use her influence to help the Catholic church as well as Princess Mary. “Was it presumptuous to wonder of God had appointed her, Jane, to put an end to these ills…By her means, true religion might be reestablished, and the rights of the Princess Mary recognized.”

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Jane Seymour, Queen of England, 1536

Jane successfully urges reconciliation between Henry and Princess Mary. Jane welcomes the younger women to court and promises to make her first among her ladies.

Her efforts on behalf of the monasteries that Henry has ordered to be broken up are unsuccessful, however. Weir has Jane plead with the king, “Sir, I beg you, for the sake of peace and of those your loving subjects who regret the passing of the old ways, please think kindly upon the monasteries. I urge you to restore those you have closed.” Henry does not take kindly to her plea, but even broaching the subject with him demonstrates Jane’s courage and her religious convictions. In this novel, Jane loves her husband but does not, as her motto suggests, simply exist to “Obey and Serve” him.

Throughout the novel, Jane feels responsible for indirectly bringing about Anne Boleyn’s death. When Henry started to seek Jane out and profess love for her, Jane thought he might set Anne aside like he did with Katherine. Yet when Anne is charged with adultery and conspiring to kill the king, Henry insists on putting her to death. Jane has no idea whether all of the charges are accurate, and feels sick over her part in Anne’s execution.

During Jane’s marriage to Henry, she repeatedly sees a shadow on the wall of her bedroom at night. She believes the shadow is Anne, thus the reference to the haunted queen in the book’s title.

Days after she gives birth to Prince Edward VI, Jane sees the shadow again. “Moonlight shone through it [the window], illuminating a shadow on the wall. No! Not now! And then, for the first time, she could clearly see those unmistakable features: the narrow face, the pointed chin, the dark eyes flashing with menance, glaring at her malevolently. Now she could not doubt who it was who had visited her in the dark reaches of the night, or of what her appearance heralded. I am going to die, she thought desperately.” Of course, no one knows exactly how Jane reacted to Anne’s death, but she would have likely been surprised since there was no precedent for killing an English queen. Obviously we don’t know if she ever thought Anne was haunting her, though it does make for interesting reading.

I recommend this novel for readers who want the known facts about Jane Seymour to be accurate, but are also looking for an interesting interpretation of what the real Jane might have been like.

Book Review of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Leadership in Turbulent Times

Let me start this review by explaining what Leadership in Turbulent Times is NOT. It is not a commentary on the current White House; Donald Trump’s name is never even mentioned. The book is also not as lengthy as Doris Kearns Goodwin’s other titles. Without notes, Leadership is 370 pages. In contrast, Goodwin’s previous book The Bully Pulpit is 752 pages without notes.

Now for what Leadership in Turbulent Times IS. It is a survey of four presidents who, though imperfect, displayed extraordinary leadership qualities during their time in office. The men included are Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson. Goodwin spent years writing about each of these leaders.

The book is divided into three main sections. In Ambition and the Recognition of Leadership, Goodwin shows how important early ambition and the desire to take charge are to successful leadership later in each man’s life. Abraham Lincoln’s famous thirst for knowledge helped him walk for miles to borrow a book. He got no encouragement from his father, who thought a strong young man like Abe should be helping with the family farm. Yet Lincoln was determined to get ahead of other young people. A contemporary recalled how Lincoln would devote himself to books while the other kids played. Years later, when a law student asked him for advice, Lincoln said, “Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any other thing.”

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Abraham Lincoln, Feb. 1860 by Mathew Brady

The second section of the book, Adversity and Growth, demonstrates how each of these men became better leaders as a result of overcoming challenges. For example, Franklin Roosevelt came from a wealthy family and appeared to be living a charmed life until he contracted polio. Suddenly the pampered FDR had to work hard just to manipulate a wheelchair. He went to Warm Springs, Georgia after hearing about a man who gained strength in his legs by swimming in the warm mineral water. FDR invested money in a rundown hotel and turned it into a resort and treatment center for polio patients. He took an active interest in his investment and became known to other patients as Doc Roosevelt. Spending time listening and sharing his own struggles with others who had polio changed Roosevelt. According to his future cabinet member Frances Perkins, the experience made him “completely warmhearted, with humility of spirit and with a deeper philosophy.” FDR’s newfound empathy would later help him to understand what other people were going through as he worked to get the U.S. out of the Great Depression.

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Gubernatorial portrait of FDR, Dec. 1940

In the third section of the book, The Leader and the Times: How They Led, Goodwin shows how the ambition and personal trials of each man made him a better leader. She presents case studies from each of their presidencies to show how effectively they led their country at challenging times. For Lincoln, she uses the introduction of the Emancipation Proclamation during the Civil War. Theodore Roosevelt’s chapter discusses his response to The Great Coal Strike of 1902. For FDR, his first 100 days in office dealing with the Great Depression are examined. Finally, Goodwin discusses Lyndon Johnson’s work on behalf of civil rights.

I recommend this book for readers who want a relatively quick introduction to these four presidents and want to learn how they became great leaders. Leadership in Turbulent Times is also a good choice for people who may be hesitant about starting one of Goodwin’s larger tomes. If readers decide they want to learn more about a particular president, they can check out Goodwin’s other excellent books.

Book Review of Holocaust Memoir Dry Tears by Nechama Tec

In contrast to other Holocaust memoirs that describe what it took to survive the concentration camps, Dry Tears is the story of a Jewish young girl with blond hair and blue eyes trying to pass as a Christian in Nazi-occupied Poland. At the beginning of the book, Nechama’s father worries that she and her sister will fall behind in school. Of course, her learning cannot take place in a traditional school since the Nazis have closed them to Jews. Even private tutoring becomes impossible.

Yet Nechama acquires different kinds of knowledge during the war years. Nazis made it extremely difficult for Poles to find enough to eat because of the activities of the Polish underground. Jews were not supposed to be in Poland at all, so there were no food rations for them. Since she looked Aryan, Nechama could pass for a Pole and venture out of her family’s hiding place. She learns to bargain for the cheapest food prices on the “black market.” Later, she learns to sell her mother’s rolls at the same market when the family finances are low.

Child vendor in ghetto during the Holocaust

Child vendor in ghetto during the Holocaust (Nechama is not living in a ghetto, but she still sells food illegally to other Poles)

Nechama also acquires knowledge about human nature most eleven year olds do not. The Christian family that takes her and her family into their small home in the Polish countryside do not do so out of charity, but out of their own self-interest. Poles were unpopular with the Nazis as it was, and hiding any Jew was punishable by death. However, no one could survive on the wages that Nazis provided to Poles, so families like the Homars decide to “keep cats,” meaning that they took in Jews in return for handsome sums of money.

Some of the members of the Homar family treat Nechama very well. Helena, the family matriarch, even encourages the girl to call her Grandma. Yet despite her affection for Nechama, Helena says that she initially disagreed with having Jews come to stay in her home because Christian blood should not be spilt for Jewish blood. The Homars, like most other Polish families, are anti-Semitic. They emphasize that Nechama and her family are “not really Jewish” because “real Jews were greedy and dishonest”–qualities that Nechama’s family abhors.

Nechama cannot understand how the Homars could like her family and still think bad things about Jews. Her father tells her that the Homars’ anti-Semitism comes from hating an abstraction, a caricature of Jews that does not exist. Soon Nechama discovers that adults are not the only ones who think Jews are evil. Children that she socializes with in the small Polish village of Kielce also make anti-Semitic remarks. She says, “in a sense, they were unconsciously telling me that I was their friend only for as long as they thought I was one of them.”

As Nechama gains knowledge, the reader learns that a trying to pass as a Christian in Poland during World War II is fraught with almost as many dangers as trying to survive a concentration camp. There are random raids on Poles that threaten to deport even Aryan looking Jews. Certain members of the Homar family are less trustworthy than others, making their hiding place precarious. Nechama’s efforts to get food and money for her family place her in special danger since Nazis hate the Poles’ black market activities.

The fact that her looks give her the opportunity to pass does not ensure her survival or her family’s. Nechama’s unique struggles make this memoir a must-read for anyone with an interest in the Holocaust years or students of human nature.

Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

As an English and History major, I was not particularly inclined to read a book about science. However, one of my Goodreads friends read it and enjoyed it, so I decided to give the book a chance. I found that I not only understood the book’s content, but I also couldn’t put it down.

The book discusses the cells that doctors at Johns Hopkins took from an African American woman with cervical cancer (Henrietta). These cells, called HeLa, grew successfully in culture. In fact, they grew so successfully that scientists all over the world wanted to use them in experiments. Among other medical advances, HeLa cells helped develop the polio vaccine, identify chromosomal disorders like Down syndrome, and test the effectiveness of chemotherapy and other drugs.

HeLa cells infected with adenovirus. Inset--HeLa cells in the process of dividing.

HeLa cells infected with adenovirus. Inset–HeLa cells in the process of dividing.

While Henrietta’s cells are an important aspect of the story, author Rebecca Skloot also sought to find out who Henrietta Lacks was. The reader discovers that many of Henrietta’s children wanted to know the same thing, since most were very young when she died. Despite her illness, Henrietta continued to cook and clean for her husband, neighbors and family. Her oldest son remembered that she was fair, but had strict rules about where her children could play.

Most interestingly, the book makes the reader think about how patients, particularly African Americans, were treated in the early 1950s. Henrietta went to Johns Hopkins because it was one of the few hospitals that agreed to treat African Americans who couldn’t pay their bills. Of course, Johns Hopkins had separate entrances for “white” and “colored” patients. Henrietta and her family had no idea that white doctors were taking samples of her cervix for their private research. Would Henrietta would have been treated any differently or given more information about the samples being taken if she was white? These are questions that the author allows the reader to decide.

During Skloot’s research, however, it is evident that the actions of Johns Hopkins researchers created distrust between Henrietta’s family and any white person who inquired about HeLa cells. For years, members of the Lacks family refused to talk to Skloot. Then one or two of them decided she could be trusted and they began sharing stories about Henrietta. Even after trust had seemingly been established, Henrietta’s daughter Deborah would accuse Skloot, who was paying for her research via credit cards and student loans, of secretly working for the hospital. Then Deborah would call Skloot as if nothing had happened and research would resume.

I finished this book with knowledge of the lengths to which scientists sometimes go to conduct their research. I also felt and better understood the distrust of some African Americans toward white people, particularly in the South. Finally, I admired Skloot’s determination to interview Henrietta’s family members and even scientists who were often less than enthusiastic about talking to her. This book will make people think about the American medical system’s treatment of patients of all colors. Highly recommended.