A magical-realist treatment of Till’s story can succeed (see Lewis Nordan’s 1993 Wolf Whistle), but not at this level of...



This well-intentioned but seriously flawed eighth novel from McFadden (Glorious, 2010, etc.) seeks to honor the memory of Emmett Till, victim of one of America’s most horrific lynchings.

The details can still make you sick to your stomach. Fourteen-year-old Emmett, an African-American from Chicago, visited family in 1955 Mississippi; after the briefest of exchanges with a white woman, he was murdered by her relatives, who mutilated his body. His story has been told many times in novels and documentaries. Curiously, McFadden devotes fewer than 40 pages to the murder and its judicial aftermath. The long first section covers the years 1921 to 1940. The narrator (the voice of Money, the hamlet where Till was lynched) focuses on a black pastor, August, and his wife Doll, whose body has been possessed since her birth by the spirit of an evil whore called Esther. While McFadden writes convincingly of the body-soul relationship, she loses control of her family saga amidst melodramatic flourishes. Just two things are important. The first is that Doll’s granddaughter Tass will fall for Emmett. The second is that a child known as J.W. will die in a flood but return to life possessed by Esther, Doll having drowned. He will grow up to be J.W. Milam, the instigator of the lynching and a certified monster with a lust to kill, thanks to Esther. So it’s not his fault! McFadden’s bizarre interpretation cheapens Till’s story. After recounting the fateful incident at the grocery store and, touchingly, Emmett’s innocent flirtation with Tass, she hurries through the murder itself, carried out by J.W. and his weak-willed brother-in-law. A long, banal concluding section follows Tass in later life; Emmett’s spirit has attached itself to her protectively. And that wicked old Esther? On the 50th  anniversary of the lynching, she returns…as Katrina.

A magical-realist treatment of Till’s story can succeed (see Lewis Nordan’s 1993 Wolf Whistle), but not at this level of distortion.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-61775-032-8

Page Count: 250

Publisher: Akashic

Review Posted Online: Dec. 4, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2011

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Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s...

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The acclaimed author of The Underground Railroad (2016) follows up with a leaner, meaner saga of Deep South captivity set in the mid-20th century and fraught with horrors more chilling for being based on true-life atrocities.

Elwood Curtis is a law-abiding, teenage paragon of rectitude, an avid reader of encyclopedias and after-school worker diligently overcoming hardships that come from being abandoned by his parents and growing up black and poor in segregated Tallahassee, Florida. It’s the early 1960s, and Elwood can feel changes coming every time he listens to an LP of his hero Martin Luther King Jr. sermonizing about breaking down racial barriers. But while hitchhiking to his first day of classes at a nearby black college, Elwood accepts a ride in what turns out to be a stolen car and is sentenced to the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory that looks somewhat like the campus he’d almost attended but turns out to be a monstrously racist institution whose students, white and black alike, are brutally beaten, sexually abused, and used by the school’s two-faced officials to steal food and supplies. At first, Elwood thinks he can work his way past the arbitrary punishments and sadistic treatment (“I am stuck here, but I’ll make the best of it…and I’ll make it brief”). He befriends another black inmate, a street-wise kid he knows only as Turner, who has a different take on withstanding Nickel: “The key to in here is the same as surviving out there—you got to see how people act, and then you got to figure out how to get around them like an obstacle course.” And if you defy them, Turner warns, you’ll get taken “out back” and are never seen or heard from again. Both Elwood’s idealism and Turner’s cynicism entwine into an alliance that compels drastic action—and a shared destiny. There's something a tad more melodramatic in this book's conception (and resolution) than one expects from Whitehead, giving it a drugstore-paperback glossiness that enhances its blunt-edged impact.

Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s novel displays its author’s facility with violent imagery and his skill at weaving narrative strands into an ingenious if disquieting whole.

Pub Date: July 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-53707-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Jan. 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

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The writing is merely serviceable, and one can’t help but wish the author had found a way to present her material as...

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An unlikely love story set amid the horrors of a Nazi death camp.

Based on real people and events, this debut novel follows Lale Sokolov, a young Slovakian Jew sent to Auschwitz in 1942. There, he assumes the heinous task of tattooing incoming Jewish prisoners with the dehumanizing numbers their SS captors use to identify them. When the Tätowierer, as he is called, meets fellow prisoner Gita Furman, 17, he is immediately smitten. Eventually, the attraction becomes mutual. Lale proves himself an operator, at once cagey and courageous: As the Tätowierer, he is granted special privileges and manages to smuggle food to starving prisoners. Through female prisoners who catalog the belongings confiscated from fellow inmates, Lale gains access to jewels, which he trades to a pair of local villagers for chocolate, medicine, and other items. Meanwhile, despite overwhelming odds, Lale and Gita are able to meet privately from time to time and become lovers. In 1944, just ahead of the arrival of Russian troops, Lale and Gita separately leave the concentration camp and experience harrowingly close calls. Suffice it to say they both survive. To her credit, the author doesn’t flinch from describing the depravity of the SS in Auschwitz and the unimaginable suffering of their victims—no gauzy evasions here, as in Boy in the Striped Pajamas. She also manages to raise, if not really explore, some trickier issues—the guilt of those Jews, like the tattooist, who survived by doing the Nazis’ bidding, in a sense betraying their fellow Jews; and the complicity of those non-Jews, like the Slovaks in Lale’s hometown, who failed to come to the aid of their beleaguered countrymen.

The writing is merely serviceable, and one can’t help but wish the author had found a way to present her material as nonfiction. Still, this is a powerful, gut-wrenching tale that is hard to shake off.

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-06-279715-5

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 17, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2018

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