Tuesday, 11 August 2020

Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Winner Books.

Hi Readers! I recently read two of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize winning books – The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys. In both the books, the main topic is about racism & how badly it is rooted in the American society. While the stories are worth reading, the way in which they are written made me almost give up on them. This post contains short reviews of both the books & my thoughts on them. INCLUDES SPOILERS!



The Underground Railroad won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2017 & received critical acclaim. Many noteworthy people have recommended this book ever since. This book is based on the real underground railway which was a bunch of safehouses to save black lives. In the book though, it is an actual underground railroad connecting different states in the US. I liked this bit of fictional touch to the original story.

The novel is the story of Cora. It starts from when she is on Randall’s farm in Georgia given the treatment of a slave. Soon, she runs away with another coloured boy named Caesar. They make it to South Carolina via the underground railroad. The villain in the story is the slave catcher Ridgeway whose life goal becomes to bring Cora back to Randall’s farm. When he comes to South Carolina, Cora escapes in time to flee to North Carolina. She stays hidden in the attic of a white family who are allies of black people. But soon, Ridgeway catches up to her. While heading back through Tennessee, some coloured boys save Cora from Ridgeway & his men. She then follows them to the Valentine farm in Indiana which is a haven for coloured people. But, soon there is a mass shooting there & in that chaos Ridgeway kidnaps Cora again. She finally takes him to the underground railroad but finds enough courage to attempt to kill him. After this she heads north & finally runs away.

From Georgia to South Carolina or North Carolina to Tennessee to Indiana & then to North; such is the journey of Cora throughout the novel. The book describes her stay at every place & each of those is something adventurous. Apart from these, there are also mini chapters telling stories of other people in Cora’s life such as her grandmother Ajarry, mother Mabel, friend Caesar, Dr. Stevens from South Carolina & Ethel whose husband hid Cora in their attic in North Carolina.


I read The Nickel Boys a while back & having read so many books in between I don’t remember the details of the book. But I will try my best. This book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2020. This book is also based on real events that took place in Dozier School, a reform school in Florida which operated for 111 years.

This is the story of Elwood Curtis who was a simple-minded boy who believed in the words on Dr. Martin Luther King. His life went as well as anyone could have hoped until one day he was wrongfully charged for a crime & thrown into the Nickel Academy. As Goodreads puts it, “The Academy’s mission statement says it provides “physical, intellectual and moral training” so the delinquent boys in their charge can become “honorable and honest men.” In reality, the Nickel Academy is a grotesque chamber of horrors.”

There is a separate house for white criminals & black criminals. They are kept separately and naturally treated very differently. Sometimes those who refuse to follow orders are straight up taken in the back and murdered. In such a place, Elwood somehow made a friend named Turner. When things went from bad to worse, both of them decided to run. But, unfortunately, in this escape, Elwood was killed but Turner successfully ran away. In his post-Nickel life, Turner changes his name to Elwood to honour his friend who always believed in the good of people. Years later, the truth about the Nickel Academy gets out & all the dead bodies are found. There was immense injustice that those boys faced. The harrowing truths about it unfolding years later gave me goosebumps.


~~Writing Style~~

Both these novels talk about the cruelty, injustice & violence caused to black people in America. It talks so harshly about the racism that was built in centuries ago & which still exists. Because of the main motto of these books, it got the recognition it deserves. In the era where we still have to protest & chant ‘Black Lives Matter’, these books just give us another reason to. I really liked to read & learn these stories of coloured people back in the day; their journey, their hardships & so much more. So, hear me when I say that both these books have brilliant stories BUT the story writing or story telling is not as good.

The narrative in both the books is so random & disconnected. Forget about the paragraphs, sometimes one sentence is not in sync with the next. At times we are reading about one story & then suddenly all these other one-named characters pop up who have no significance for the rest of the story. All those names thrown around does not make it fun to read. Also, so many times I was reading about one thing and that randomly changes into a flashback which then changes into someone else’s story and then all of a sudden comes back to that one thing. Three or more times, when there is a good prose going on, the author himself throws a spoiler. Something like years later she will remember this (so she doesn’t die) or there will be riots that very night which all the people will remember for ages. Why tell us this out of nowhere? What’s the point?

In the beginning chapters of these books, it becomes impossible to really get into the book. The bizarre paragraphs disconnected with the characters & going on & on are like a drunk person in the dead of the night on an abandoned silent road. It is not at all enjoyable to read. Both these books feel like the author had an epiphany & then he just threw all of that onto the book without ever thinking of giving it a proper structure or chronology.

Because of these and so many little annoying things in the writing style, it becomes a very poor reading experience despite how good the original story is supposed to be & how important the message is.

~~Fiction Based on Real Stories~~

As mentioned earlier, the part where these stories are partly based on real stories is something I found to be good enough to continue reading. If these weren’t important stories with an important message, I might have given up reading them altogether. But, if you want to read books based on real events, it would be best to pick something else, especially if you are a very particular reader.

~~Surprise Factors~~

There are many times where the author himself gives us the spoilers of what is to happen in a few pages, which leaves little to interpretation or imagination. But a few things were unpredictable & added a bit of good surprise factor to both the books.

In The Underground Railroad, it was Mabel’s story. How different it happened than how everyone perceived it all those years. And, in The Nickel Boys, it was the big reveal when we know that Elwood is actually Turner. So, these parts count for maybe 5 pages or less but make up a bit for putting us through all that random writing.


I think most of what this post talks about is how it is vital to write about topics like racism in the form of a story but to make that story interesting with a proper structure & form which will not look like the author is randomly reminiscing about it while actually writing it.

I like to know that the author has put his everything in a book. It helps me appreciate the book more. Let that ‘everything’ be research or in this case mere accurate structural organization of words. These books completely lacked that but became highly acclaimed because no one in their right minds are about to say that a story about the evil of racism is not good. I think it increases the author’s responsibility when they choose such a topic but if they can’t deliver it then what’s the point? I had the same issue with ‘The Water Dancer’ by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Check it out here!) Also one of the reasons why Tayari Jones’ ‘An American Marriage’ did not work for me was because it only claimed to be a story about the wrongful conviction of a black man, but in reality was a different story altogether. (Check it out here!) The only book written by a Person of Color about People of Color which I completely LOVED was Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. (Check it out here!) That book is the standard against I measure every other book focusing on racism.

I have rated both The Underground Railroad & the Nickel Boys at 3.5/5. These books had the potential of a 4.5/5 stars from me, but because of so many aspects failed to reach there. Let me know your opinions on the book in the comments below!


Until next time,

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