1. What did you like / dislike?
2. Did anyone else feel like they were reading a ghost story? ("Even in death the boys were trouble." 3) What constitutes a ghost story?
3. What did you make of the use of foreshadowing -- ominous or too heavy? ("On the day he was arrested, just before the deputy appeared, an advertisement for Fun Town came on the radio." 27..."Elwood was asleep when a different roar commenced. It came from outside...Forbidding and mechanical...torrential. A voice across the room said, "Somebody's going out for ice cream," and a few boys snickered." 54)
4. Was the album Martin Luther King at Zion Hill the key to Elwood's "undoing"...or was it the encyclopedia prank?
5. What do you make of the contradictions -- of what Elwood was attempting to understand about the world...and the assumptions he made? "Elwood asked his grandmother when Negroes were going to start staying at the Richmond, and she said it's one thing to tell someone to do what's right and another thing for them to do it." 18..."He'd kept his movement dreams so close that it never occurred to him that others in his school shared his need to stand up." 35..."One boy looked like a thirty-year-old man, but Elwood knew that was impossible since they let you out when you turned eighteen." 53
6. Were you surprised that Whitehead completely omitted the legal investigation, and a trial if there was one. We at least know he had a lawyer: "Elwood had gotten off lucky, his lawyer said. Stealing a car was a big-ticket offense for Nickel." (53)
7. Why give Elwood glasses? What could that represent?
8. What do you make of the cover art? Two shadows becoming one?
9. What did you think of the pacing in this book? (Part 1: pre-Nickel; Part 2: Nickel; Part 3: post-Nickel)
10. Does the narrator change at all? Or is part 2 from Turner's perspective?
11. When Turner balks at giving out his business card, is it because he doesn't want Nickel to follow him, or because he just remembered it doesn't have his real name on it? "He started for his wallet and his ACE MOVING business cards -- "Mr. Elwood Curtis, President"-- but thought better of it." (167)
12. Who was this book written for? What do we readers do with this new knowledge?
13. Is the ending "enough"? Do we need a stronger connection between Turner and Elwood and Harriet? "If he had been less tired he might have recognized the name from a story he heard once when he was young, about a boy who liked to read adventure stories in the kitchen, but it eluded him. He was hungry and they served all day, and that was enough." (210)
14. What's true? (Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida, reported by Ben Montgomery in the Tampa Bay Times in 2014) The most recent article from Tampa Bay Times that comes up in the Google search begins like this:
"This story was initially published on April 19, 2009 with the headline “For Their Own Good." It was the first installment in what would become an award-winning series that resulted in the unearthing of dozens of previously unidentified graves. The Dozier school would close in 2011."
Check out this excerpt from 2015:
"Opened on Jan. 1, 1900, the reformatory on 1,200 acres just south of Marianna was meant to be a school, not a prison, and wards were students, not inmates. But that concept fell apapart in its earliest days. Farming on school property proved profitable. And soon, officials at the predominantly black school, under Milton's leadership, were asking the state for ways to make the children's sentences longer and to stiffen laws so more kids would be sent to Marianna."Having so few inmates makes the crop come in slow," one superintendent wrote in 1906.
Milton asked the governor to authorize that "incorrigible children be sent, without conviction, for an indefinite period, leaving the term to be fixed by the management."
The state complied and numbers shot up. So did the problems. In 1903, when the school held boys and girls, investigators found children as young as 6 locked "in irons, just as common criminals." Six years later, in 1909, investigators found no desks in the schoolhouse. The superintendent had been falsifying inventory and keeping kids past the age of 18, presumably for labor. Two years later, in 1911, they found kids crowded, hungry, sick, and another superintendent was beating them with a leather strap.
Three years later, in 1914, some eight boys and two staff members (there are conflicting reports) burned to death locked in a dormitory. A grand jury learned the superintendent was in town on a "pleasure bent" when the fire started. The superintendent lost his job.
The following year, 1915, the Tampa Times published a scathing exposé, quoting former inmates who said that girls and boys were raped by guards; that boys were forced to labor in fields owned by private parties; that incurable and filthy diseases had been contracted by inmates. In 1918, with a population around 220, at least 11 boys died from influenza and another exposé prompted calls for the state to close the school. The Tampa Tribune called it a "holocaust."
"How long will the intelligent and God-fearing people of Florida stand for a thing of this kind?"
Ninety-three more years."
It was so nice to see you last night to discuss The Nickel Boys. Thank you, Corinne, for the cocktails and the cozy fire!
This book was a challenging read, but people who made it through said they were glad to have read it, even if it wasn't the kind of thing you could "enjoy". When I talk about injustice with my kids -- slavery, the Civil Rights movement and the like -- I try to impress upon them that this isn't history of long ago but rather the current state of our country. Recent books like Just Mercy, Locking Up Our Own and The New Jim Crow make it clear that our country suffers from an ingrained culture of racism. The school that Whitehead depicts in The Nickel Boys didn't close until 2014, and during our discussion last night, we wondered how many other schools might still exist that operated in a similar fashion -- exploiting and abusing youth from came from broken families or who had committed petty crimes.
If you haven't finished it yet, push through, then ask yourself Jadyn's poignant question: Is the ending hopeful...or not?
For March, we are going to shift gears back to memoir and read Maid by Stephanie Land.
Then, if you want to get a head start, we will discuss The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy. This is a longer read, so we want to give you a head start. Thank you to the mom who brought to our attention this book and the issue of oppression of Muslims in Kashmir.
If you have an issue close to your heart, let us know. We'd love to read about it. I apologize to those who are busy on Wednesdays that we need to schedule the next two months on Wednesdays.
Hope to see you there!
The Tipsy Mamas' Book Club is co-hosted by Corinne Foster and myself, though the spirit of our discussions is flavored by many readers.