And The Pulitzer Goes To.....
Updated: Aug 1, 2020
In 2013, I suggested that my book club read The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. At the time, we didn’t know that it would win the Pulitzer for fiction that year. I loved the book, but my book club never forgave me for picking it. We were all mothers to very young children and so the time we had for reading was slim to none. Having a 784-page book on your bedside table when you are sleep-deprived really didn’t make anyone happy. The Goldfinch was a book that brought out strong emotions, people either loved it or hated it. When The Goldfinch won the Pulitzer in 2014, critics were very divided. Many thought that the book did not deserve such a prestigious award. I didn’t agree and was happy for Donna Tartt on her win. That marked the end of my book club, and since then we have become more of a “culture club” and don’t really read anymore.
This week was a big week because the winners of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction were announced on Monday. I always wait in anticipation for this day because I am eager to know if one of the books I read will win.
The Pulitzer Prize in fiction is an award given “for distinguished fiction published in book form during the year by an American author, preferably dealing with American life…”
The three books nominated this year were The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead, The Dutch House, by Ann Patchett, and The Topeka School, by Ben Lerner. Of the three nominees, I had read two and I happened to love them both. In my blog post dated January 14th, I wrote about my top ten books of 2019, and both The Nickel Boys and The Dutch House were listed. Because they were both published in 2019, I didn’t get to review them so I wanted to do that for you now. Everyone should read both of these books as they were both deserving of this prize.
But before I go on, I should tell you that this year’s winner is The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead. This is the second Pulitzer granted to him for fiction writing and he is one of four writers in history to have won the prize twice. He also won in 2017 for The Underground Railroad. Whitehead is only 50 years old, which makes his status as a two-time winner even more remarkable.
Colson Whitehead grew up in New York City, and while his books portray the lives of poor black people, Whitehead grew up in an Upper Middle-Class family and attended the prestigious Trinity School in Manhattan and then went on to Harvard University.
To be completely honest, the subject matter of this book scared me a little at first. The novel is about a fictional reform school in Florida that was based on the Dozier School that operated for 111 years. It is the story of Elwood Curtis, a very bright African American student who was raised by his grandmother in Tallahassee, FL. He is by all accounts a good boy, does well in school, and stays out of trouble. He is a studious boy who is accepted to an all-black college but the school is far from his hometown so sometimes he hitchhikes a ride. One day he is picked up by a man who is driving a stolen car. As you can imagine, this does not end well. The man is pulled over and both the driver and Elwood are arrested. Because Elwood is a minor, he is sent to reform school instead of jail. This absolutely devastates his grandmother who has such high hopes for her only grandson. But Elwood is determined to do his time, stay out of trouble, and get out quickly.
What Elwood realizes when he gets to Nickel Academy, is that while the school looks very beautiful, almost like a college campus, it is a school of horrors especially for the black kids. The black dorm is in terrible condition and the black students are fed whatever is leftover from the white kids. It’s the 1960’s in Florida and the Jim Crow laws still govern the South. There is no justice for a black kid serving time. Elwood soon finds out that beatings take place in the middle of the night and he is subject to these beatings on two occasions. The beatings are so bad that the students often pass out or have to be sent to the infirmary for weeks.
The real Dozier School was shut down in 2011 after decades of allegations against the school for beatings, rapes, torture, and murder of students by the guards and employees. 55 graves were found on the campus but it is believed that nearly 100 deaths occurred at the school.
While this will strike you as very disturbing subject matter, it’s an incredible story of resilience. It is a story of injustice and the black man’s plight in the white-controlled world of Jim Crow’s 1960s. To read this book is to take a glimpse into what it was like to be a black youth in 1960s America. It was very moving and an important read.
The second book, a Pulitzer nominee but not the winner, is The Dutch House by Ann Patchett. As I have mentioned in my blogs before, I will read anything by Ann Patchett, I love everything she writes and this book is no different.
Ann Patchett is an American author who lives in Nashville Tennessee and owns a very popular bookstore there, Parnassus Books. In 2012, Patchett was on the Time Magazine list of the 100 most influential people in the world. The Magician’s Assistant, Commonwealth, and Bel Canto are three of my favorites which I highly recommend.
Her latest work, The Dutch House is the story of two siblings Maeve and Danny Conroy. The novel starts around 1946 when their father Cyril Conroy, buys a house as a surprise for their mother in an estate sale. Maeve is 5 years old at the time and Danny is not born yet. Cyril is a self-made real estate owner and has been very successful in his business. As a show of his success, he surprises their mother with the house.
The house was built in 1922 by a Dutch couple, the VanHoebeek’s who made their fortune in the cigarette business. It is located in the suburbs of Philadelphia and is grand and ornate with more rooms then they could ever need. It contains 6 bedrooms and a ballroom and their mother hates it from the minute she sees it. Elna Conroy is a simple woman, an Irish Catholic girl who does not aspire to live in a big house. She would rather give her time and money to those who have nothing. Cyril and Elna’s different values eventually prove to be too much and Elna eventually leaves when Danny is just 3 and Maeve is 10 years old. Their father never speaks of her again.
Cyril eventually remarries a woman much younger than himself who has two young daughters and she almost immediately takes on the role of the wicked step-mother. The story closely resembles a more modern-day version of Cinderella. It is narrated by Danny and for much of the book, you don’t have the real answers as to why his mother left, and if his step-mother was truly as evil as he imagines in his head. He was young when these events occurred in his life so he doesn’t really know the answers. Danny is also very influenced by his sister Maeve and believes her version of things.
Upon his father’s death, the stepmother inherits everything and the siblings are essentially no longer welcome in the house that becomes a symbol of all that they thought was once good in their life. It’s not because they have many happy memories in the house but rather it is where their mother had once lived with them. Their mother was a mystery to them and they want to know everything they can about her. The house becomes a symbol of nostalgia for them; nostalgia for a time when things in life were easier and their lives resembled something close to normal. The house is also a sign of the future they were deprived of. They return to the house year after year just to sit outside and watch it. Like any child, whose memories are not always accurate, they glorify the years before they moved out and drive by the house to revisit the memories of these times.
This is a book about family, compassion, and forgiveness. I always love a book that follows a family through the ups and downs of their lives and this book does just that. A fairytale with a castle, an idyllic mother who they never really know, and a wicked step-mother who banishes them for life. But it is also the story of the love between siblings and how when all else fails, the incredible bond of siblings carries them through.
The Nickel Boys
By Colson Whitehead
Publication Date: July 16, 2019
The Dutch House
By Ann Patchett
Publication Date: September 24, 2019