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 for ages fourteen and up.

 

 

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.

 

 

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.

Thanks to a MOOC, I Don’t Miss Taking College Classes Anymore

I’ve sometimes missed the simplicity and camaraderie that characterized my college years. One of my majors in college was English, so I thought, “wouldn’t it be fun to go back and be able to discuss books with other people?” Taking a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) in historical fiction helped cure me of this feeling.

The one thing that the course confirmed for me was that college was much simpler than my current life as a writer. Why? Because other people told me what to read and write. And that was the situation I found myself in during my online class.

At one point during the course, I watched a recording of students at the university interacting with an author of a book we read. I had several issues with the novel, including the fact that it contained almost no dialogue.

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In my opinion, college should be teaching young people to think critically. And I had certain professors who encouraged students to share their honest opinions. Yet during this class discussion each of the students praised the visiting author’s work. They started their responses with phrases like “I thought it was really interesting that…” or “I really enjoyed…” Meanwhile I’m sitting at my desk thinking, Wait, you couldn’t ALL have enjoyed this book.

The students were asked by their professor to respond to what they read, but every one of them knew that they could not say that they disliked the book, or that it would make an excellent sleeping aid without the harmful side effects.

Perhaps losing a couple of hours of my time bothered me less in my early twenties. Back then, school was my primary job, and most jobs involve something that’s distasteful. Even though I love writing, there are aspects of it that I would rather skip, especially if footnotes are involved.

But please don’t ask me to spend my free time reading a book that I don’t like. Time is just too precious.