An often masterful look at one man’s resistance to American independence.

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A PASSEL OF TROUBLE

THE SAGA OF LOYALIST PARTISAN DAVID FANNING

A historical novel that depicts the American Revolutionary War from the perspective of a notorious Loyalist.

When Quaker Josh Lowe and his friend Johnny O’Daniel meet David Fanning, he seems less than formidable—a gangly teenager with a scalp disfigured by a skin disease. It turns out that David recently deserted from a private militia due to brutal treatment by his cohorts, and he is all alone in the world. He takes up with Josh and Johnny even though he’s still being pursued for his act of desertion. He flees north to stay with Josh’s uncle Elijah and eventually joins Capt. James Lindley’s Tory militia. Soon, Whig bandits rob and humiliate him, causing the apolitical David to feel angry pains of partisanship in his heart for the first time. He participates in the first battle between Loyalists and rebels, and he enjoys the heat of conflict; however, he’s soon branded an outlaw and gets captured. He later joins up with a Cherokee family and begins a romance with a young woman but soon finds himself the head of a Tory military company. Still, he’s relentlessly hunted, although he repeatedly finds ways to escape capture by any means available, including bribery. At one point, he’s acquitted of treason and walks away from the war, reaffirming his original neutrality as a condition of a pardon—but he still keeps getting drawn back in. Epley’s (A Passel of Hate, 2011) command of the historical material is astounding, and he arrestingly portrays David’s visceral, and finally bloodthirsty, allegiance to the Tory cause, which begins as an “overwhelming urge for pure vengeance” at the age of 19. The author combines his academic rigor with novelistic strokes, showing how David’s feats on the battlefield became the fodder of legend, even myth: “We did nothing to dispel the belief he was everywhere, unmercifully striking with lightning speed against the foes of King George,” says Josh, the story’s narrator. Epley’s devotion to detail can be excessive at times, and one may tire of reading of the umpteenth time that David escapes. That said, Epley’s protagonist leads a wildly adventurous life that’s often riveting. It’s also exceedingly rare to see a sympathetic treatment of the Loyalist side—fictional or otherwise—which makes this novel an uncommon treat.

An often masterful look at one man’s resistance to American independence.

Pub Date: Nov. 9, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-5351-8882-1

Page Count: 432

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Feb. 13, 2017

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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 NICKEL BOYS

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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THE TATTOOIST OF AUSCHWITZ

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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