In the time of the American Civil Rights Movement, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and a new boxer called Cassius Clay, a wholesome teenage boy is sent to a school to advance his academic and moral education. It almost destroyed him.
His most prized possession is a recording of Martin Luther King's speeches, which he learns off by heart, and aspires to live by King's teachings. Even against his friends, he always stands up for what is right and good: '“because for him to do nothing was to undermine his own dignity.”
Unfortunately he makes a wrong choice and finds himself in the company of a wrong'un when the police turn up. He is tried and sentenced without much fanfare in the narrative and sent to a reform school called the Nickel Academy. There are rewards in the terms of merits and promotions but the Jim Crow laws enforced in Florida ensure that segregation prevents our young hero from advancing.
There are unbelievable horrors in this prison, thinly disguised as a school. Nightly beatings so severe some boys were permanently scarred, mental, physical and sexual abuse normalised for these second-class citizens. And some boys are pulled out of bed at night and never seen again. Nothing gratuitous is shown in the telling. Whether this is to demonstrate the routine behaviour as an accepted part of life or the author does not want to dwell on it, the effect is the same. The reader stops to register what has just been read. This is not that kind of horror book.
He makes friends with similar boys, one of whom he is particularly close to. His friend serves as a comparison: he accepts things as they are and learns to get by and use the system, whereas the protagonist remains idealistic and seeks righteous change.
The power of this story is that we know, from history, that places like this existed and the prejudice and ill-treatment African-Americans were subjected to. The opening to the book is a slow description of the boy's family and interests, emphasising that he is intelligent, hard working and straight-up, mainly due to his grandmother's upbringing. As Martin Luther KIng said, he was "as good as anyone."
The final section sees our hero as a grown-up, obviously surviving his experiences and thriving. He reflects on how his experiences have shaped him and continue to do so, still with the words of Martin Luther King scaffolding his beliefs. Sadly, he observes how racist attitudes still persist.
A difficult story simply told. This novel at times reads like a textbook. Perhaps that is the point.
Pulitzer Prize Winner 2020
Published by Fleet (Little, Brown Book Group, UK) on 1 August 2019. Advanced review copy supplied by the publisher.