This novel is based on the true story of a boy’s reform school in Florida where abuse and mistreatment were rampant. And if that’s not enough, it’s also about the implications of race in such an environment, and how one black young man (Elmwood) essentially is railroaded into this awful place by being in the wrong place at the right time. The 2020 Pulitzer winner is not messing around. At it’s core, it is the story of the friendship that blossoms between Elmwood and Turner, and the consequences of their friendship.
This book is short, tiny even, with a mere 213 pages. But Whitehead knows what he is doing, because he crams so much suffering, heart, and heartache into those 213 pages that were it a mere 214 it might have been too much to take. This is a book that will break your heart. In fact, I remember speed-reading through the end because it was just such such an unrelenting narrative. A friend and I were doing a two-person book club discussion and she referred to it as “quietly devastating” and that about sums it up.
Elmwood is a rare find in this environment: he has a stalwart commitment to doing what is right, and manages to still believe that by staying true to himself and his values, it will turn out okay in the end. He wants desperately to keep his humanity, and rise above the situation he has found himself in, imprisoned having done nothing wrong, and uses the words of Dr. King to buoy him, and we watch as he is slowly broken down.
“A jail within a jail. In those long hours, he struggled over Reverend King’s equation. “Throw us in jail and we will love you … But be assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win our freedom for ourselves, we will so appeal to your heart and your conscience that we will win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory.” No he could not make that leap to love. He understood neither the impulse of the proposition nor the will to execute it.”
Whew. This novel takes you on quite a ride, so I don’t want to get much into the plot but I’ll say that Whitehead’s accolades were fully deserved and this is one I’ll be recommending to everyone I know, looking for more understanding of what it can mean to be black in America.