Solid civil rights–era fiction; well worth a read.

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In Every Way That Matters

A coming-of-age novel set in the rural South during the civil rights era.

Orphaned as a boy and raised by Aunt Ethel and Uncle Gordon in a small town outside of New Orleans, John W. Archer is small and serious and sees himself as different from everyone else. His best friend is the similarly disenfranchised Crawford Smith. Despite their mutual aloofness, they develop a firm friendship and become brothers “in every way that matters.” After a slow start to the novel—which in retrospect seems designed to sketch out the architecture of the boys’ friendship but is nevertheless, on first reading, a bit unfocused—the narrative zeroes in on Crawford’s complicated relationship with his uncle Hal Crawford and the complexities of both boys’ love interests. Hal is an outlier in their small town, living in “nigger town” and working as a civil rights lawyer during a time when segregation was the law and lynchings were not yet a thing of the past. Both boys are smart and honorable, and they see that the way things are is not the way they should be. Still, they struggle with whether their future is—like Hal’s—to stay and live and love within their imperfect world, striving in some way to improve it, or to escape, via college, to a more progressive world. The answers aren’t obvious, and in fact, the boys’ choices flip-flop as they struggle to be true to themselves and to live within the expectations handed down to them by teachers, girlfriends, parents, the formidable Aunt Ethel, and Hal, who, for all his talk about following one’s own path, is ultimately more interested in having others follow his path. Cheevers (The Able Seaman’s Mate, 2013, etc.) has a gift for dialogue, and much of the novel is composed of animated, often funny, back and forth between John, Crawford, and Hal. He’s less skilled with moments of action, focusing somewhat dispassionately, for instance, on the logistics of the novel’s climactic scene, to the extent that it reads like a series of stage directions: so-and-so raises his hand to strike, such-and-such dodges, so-and-so gets in between, such-and-such holds so-and-so back. Still, Cheever deals effectively with big ideas, and his characters are both authentic and sympathetic, investing the reader in the choices that they make and the ways they test and express their loyalties to each other and to the world around them.

Solid civil rights–era fiction; well worth a read.

Pub Date: July 13, 2014

ISBN: 978-1500485276

Page Count: 268

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: March 14, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2015

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Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

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THE VANISHING HALF

Inseparable identical twin sisters ditch home together, and then one decides to vanish.

The talented Bennett fuels her fiction with secrets—first in her lauded debut, The Mothers (2016), and now in the assured and magnetic story of the Vignes sisters, light-skinned women parked on opposite sides of the color line. Desiree, the “fidgety twin,” and Stella, “a smart, careful girl,” make their break from stultifying rural Mallard, Louisiana, becoming 16-year-old runaways in 1954 New Orleans. The novel opens 14 years later as Desiree, fleeing a violent marriage in D.C., returns home with a different relative: her 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The gossips are agog: “In Mallard, nobody married dark....Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.” Desiree's decision seals Jude’s misery in this “colorstruck” place and propels a new generation of flight: Jude escapes on a track scholarship to UCLA. Tending bar as a side job in Beverly Hills, she catches a glimpse of her mother’s doppelgänger. Stella, ensconced in white society, is shedding her fur coat. Jude, so black that strangers routinely stare, is unrecognizable to her aunt. All this is expertly paced, unfurling before the book is half finished; a reader can guess what is coming. Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism. The scene in which Stella adopts her white persona is a tour de force of doubling and confusion. It calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book's 50-year-old antecedent. Bennett's novel plays with its characters' nagging feelings of being incomplete—for the twins without each other; for Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, who is trans and seeks surgery; for their friend Barry, who performs in drag as Bianca. Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella's daughter, a spoiled actress.

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-53629-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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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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