Isolation Read #35

This is a deceptively simple read which tackles both a scandal of abuse at a young boys’ ‘correctional facility’ which went unchecked (ignored) for over 50 years, and also speaks more broadly to the racist history of America.

While the names are fictional, the story is based on the real history of the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida which was exposed in the Tampa Bay Times and which subsequently led to a forensic archaeological investigation of the burial site by a group from the University of South Florida.

In just over 200 pages, Whitehead lays it all bare through using one central character – Elwood – who is wrongly arrested on his way to college and is rapidly swallowed into a system that simply doesn’t care how this educated and polite young black boy ended up in Nickel. But now that he is there, he won’t be getting out easily and he will be beaten and abused while he is there. Elwood lists the four known ‘ways out’ of Nickel, one of which is to be ‘disappeared’ – that is, to be beaten to death by the guards, who vary only in the levels of sadism and racism they exhibit, and buried in Boot Hill, the cemetery round the back of the institution, where most graves are unmarked. It is ‘known’ amongst the boys, that not all the people buried there were dead when they were buried.

The writing is economical, without being sparse. The story rests on a history that does not need to be embellished to have power. The characters are well-drawn and believable, the main character / narrator is empathetic.¬†Despite the subject matter, the reading is not a brutalising experience. Most of the horror – not all of it – happens ‘off page’, it its suggested, or the results are alluded to. The real horror, like any regime of terror, lies within the minds of the victims, in that they curtail their behaviour and speech in anticipation of angering the authorities / guards and therefore seek to avoid reprisals, which are inevitably violent.

Chapter 6 opens:

The white boys bruised differently than the black boys and called it the Ice Cream Factory because you came out with bruises of every colour. The black boys called it the White House because it was the official name and it fit and didn’t need to be embellished. The White House delivered the law and everybody obeyed.

…and the plot twist – its not so much a twist as a massive switch-back – coming only about 20 pages from the end, is brilliantly done and changes what thought you had just read.

Whitehead has been rightly garlanded for this novel it is a hugely impressive achievement, which takes historical events and makes them current, demonstrating that this abuse is part of a continuum that has not been acknowledged or addressed and therefore has not gone away.

It is hard to overstate how good this book is.

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