This was a 2019 publication in large print I checked out from the library. Although I have The Underground Railroad by this author on my Kindle, I have not read it yet, but after reading Nickel Boys, I intend to.
Elwood, the protagonist is an upstanding 14 year old, who is ready to start college at the beginning of the story. He has been raised by his grandmother, Harriett (named for Harriett Tubman), and raised on recordings by Reverend Martin Luther King. Unexpectedly and unjustly, Elwood is arrested and shipped off to the Nickel (a man’s last name) Reformatory in Florida. There he is beaten and tortured and barely survives. At the reformatory, Elwood mets Turner, a streetwise, daring rebel. It is he who convinces Elwood to join in an escape.
Fast forward to Elwood as an adult, owning his own moving company, and doing everything he can to “keep a low profile” and stay unnoticed. The adult Elwood is keeping a secret he has kept all his adult life, and when it is revealed at the end of the novel, it is guaranteed to blow the reader’s mind.
Lisa Ko’s 2017 novel, winner of the PEN/Bellwether Prize for fiction awarded by Barbara Kingsolver (for a novel that addresses issues of social justice) is an excellent novel. It is the story of Deming Guo, aka Daniel Wilkinson. The title indicates that everyone in his life leaves, or he leaves other people. It is an intricate story of “love and loyalty.”
As the story begins, we find Deming with his immigrant mother, Polly, who works in a nail salon struggling to survive in The Bronx. One day Polly does not come home from work, and her boyfriend and his sister, Vivian, the mother’s roommates are not sure what to do with the ten year old. Deming, of course, wonders why his mother left him, then soon, why Vivian left him with social services who allowed the Wilkinsons, a middle-aged, white couple who are professors in upstate New York to adopt him.
This is not just an immigrant story, but a mystery that has many surprises along the reader’s journey through the novel. The book deals with expectations: parental expectations ; middle-class expectations, from both biological and adoptive parents; and Deming’s own expectations from life. Because of the last, he (Daniel) becomes a slacker, somewhat directionless and lacking purpose. The writer’s point of view alternates between Deming’s and Polly’s, spinning out extraordinary lives of both main characters. There are happy moments and sad ones as well. The setting spans the globe, presenting “one of the most engaging, deeply probing, and beautiful books I have read.” (Laila Lalami, author). I agree.