Hello. I’m Jay Ruud and I’m glad you’re here.

Jay Ruud Blog

Jay Ruud’s Reviews

I go to a lot of movies. I also read a lot of books. So I figure, why not talk about them here? Which I do. A lot.

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Parable of the Talents

Parable of the Talents

Octavia E. Butler (1998)

Three Tennysons/Half Shakespeare

“Choose your leaders with wisdom and forethought. To be led by a coward is to be controlled by all that the coward fears. To be led by a fool is to be led by the opportunists who control the fool. To be led by a thief is to offer up your most precious treasures to be stolen. To be led by a liar is to ask to be lied to. To be led by a tyrant is to sell yourself and those you love into slavery.”

These are the words of Lauren Oya Olamina, the protagonist of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Talents. Imagine an America in which people get their news in short sound bites that “purport to tell us all we need to know in flashy pictures and quick, witty, verbal one-two punches. Twenty-five or thirty words are supposed to be enough in a news bullet to explain either a war or an unusual set of Christmas lights.” Imagine an America on the verge of ruin as society begins to break own as a result of global warming. Imagine an America in which a narcissistic politician who eschews scientific knowledge is swept into office by Christian evangelical extremists who essentially serve as a front for his violent, misogynist, and racist supporters, who use his election as a front for their own greed or their bigoted agendas. And imagine that this president’s campaign is powered by the slogan “Make America great again.”

Perhaps this is all not very difficult for you to imagine. But Octavia E. Butler imagined it all in the second of her dystopian “Earthseed” novels, published in 1998. After the success of its predecessor, Parable of the Sower, Butler was the first science fiction writer to receive a MacArthur “Genius” fellowship, which she hoped would enable her to write four more books in the Parable series. Parable of the Talents won Butler her second Nebula Award for Best Science Fiction Novel in 1999, but she was never able to complete the third novel, Parable of the Trickster. After several false starts, she found the storyline too depressing, and took a break to write the science fiction vampire novel Fledgling(2005) before dying unexpectedly the following year after a fall outside her Seattle home at the age of 58. But Talents’uncanny similarity to current events is enough to make it worthy of a resurgence in popularity now, more than twenty years after its initial publication. Butler herself thought of the novel as a “cautionary tale,” what she called an “If this goes on…” story. She looked at the news, considered the forces of climate change, gun violence, unbridled capitalism, mass incarceration, and speculated what kind of dystopian future might result from these changes. She also believed that social and political progress were not necessarily inevitably moving forward, and that fear of change could well invite a reversal of progressive advances in society, provoking more openly hostile xenophobia and racism. It was a warning, not a prophecy, she insisted, “although people have told me it was prophecy. All I have to say to that is: I certainly hope not.”

The first Earthseed novel, Parable of the Sower, begins in the year 2024. Seawater is rising because of global warming, and fresh water is a precious commodity. There is mass unemployment and large corporations now own entire cities, “company towns” in which their workers are essentially their own property. Schools are all privatized so that only the rich receive an education, and the police have to be paid to actually protect you. This first Earthseed novel is told in the first person through Lauren Olamina’s journal entries. Growing up in a working class neighborhood in Southern California, walled to keep out roving gangs of homeless marauders, black teenager Lauren has developed her own personal religion, rejecting the faith of her Baptist preacher father. She calls it “Earthseed,” the chief tenets of which are, first, that “God is change,” and that people therefore need to adapt to and to direct that change as best they can. And second, the destiny of human beings is to take root among the stars, on other planets where the human race itself can achieve a kind of immortality. When Lauren’s community is raided and burned to the ground, now orphaned and alone, she leaves the greater Los Angeles area and begins a long walk north on Highway 101 with a stream of other migrant refugees, hoping to reach Oregon or Canada where things are not as bad. It’s a dangerous journey, since the road is full of thieves, murderers and rapists. What makes her journey even more dangerous is her hidden ailment known as “hyperempathy,” a condition (the side effect of her mother’s addiction to a particular popular drug of the time) that forces her to physically experience the pain that those around her are feeling.

Lauren is able to ally herself with other vulnerable refugees, mostly other people of color, racially mixed couples, and other “hyperempaths,” to be safer on the road. Most importantly she gets close to a black doctor named Taylor Franklin Bankole. Ultimately the entire group settles on land that Bankole owns in northern California, and after the 18-year old Lauren marries the middle-aged Bankole, they begin a small agricultural community that they name “Acorn,” all of whose members eventually adopt the new “Earthseed” religion.

In this sequel, Parable of the Talents, we begin four years later, in 2032. In this world, people with enough income have become addicted to high tech virtually reality “dream masks,” in which wearers can take part in fantasies in the form of pre-programed dream narratives. Forced labor has become more common, enforced by high-tech slave collars through which slaves can be controlled with pain (this is technically illegal, but the U.S. Constitution doesn’t seem to be very closely enforced). Women are more blatantly oppressed than ever, with “nags” punished by having their tongues cut out. The novel is told mostly from the point of view of Lauren’s journals from this time period, but these now alternate with entries from her daughter Larkin Olamina, calling herself Asha Vere (the name of a heroine from a popular “dream mask” scenario), who is editing her mother’s journals after her death.

Acorn has become a successful, viable community, which has slowly grown and is on the verge of prospering amid the chaos that is worse than ever in California. Presidential candidate Andrew Steele Jarret, a former preacher and founder of the fundamentalist and fast-growing Church of Christian America, promises to make the country great again by returning to its “Christian origins,” promising to eliminate freedom of religion by getting rid of any non-Christian elements in the nation. (Yes, the Bill of Rights is out the window too). By the time he is elected, violent gangs of his supporters, calling themselves “crusaders” and wearing smocks with crosses sewn on, like an empowered new KKK, roam the country attacking those they call “heathens.”

It doesn’t take long before Acorn, peopled by Earthseed believers, comes to the attention of one of Christian America’s terrorist groups, who attack them at night, put all the residents in slave collars, and turns Acorn into “Camp Christian,” a “re-education” facility designed, ostensibly, to force the residents back to Christianity, while at the same time stealing their property and goods and nightly raping the women. They also take away all of the children in the community and give them to Christian America families to be raised in the faith.

The year and a half the Acorn residents spend in Camp Christian sound eerily like a description of life in a Nazi concentration camp. When Lauren is at last freed by an act of fate, she spends her remaining life successfully building a wide following for Earthseed and unsuccessfully searching for her stolen child. By chance she meets her brother Marc, whom she had long since given up for dead, but who has now become a Christian America pastor. When she seeks his help in tracking down her daughter through the records of the organization he has become a part of, he rejects her story of her baby’s kidnapping, preferring the “alternate facts” that his church would never engage in such a practice.

To say much more about how the story of this novel plays out would be too much of a spoiler, but overall this is not a pleasant or a relaxing read. It is disturbingly contemporary, and far more prophetic than even Butler intended. Butler’s Earthseed books are definitely worth a read. Three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare for this one.

NOW AVAILABLE:

KnightOfTheCart

The Knight of the Cart, fifth novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing, at https://encirclepub.com/product/theknightofthecart/
You can also order from Amazon at
https://www.amazon.com/Knight-Cart-MERLIN-MYS…/…/ref=sr_1_1…
OR an electronic version from Barnes and Noble at
https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-knight-of-…/1133349679…

Here’s what the book is about:
The embittered Sir Meliagaunt is overlooked by King Arthur when a group of new knights, including Gildas of Cornwall, are appointed to the Round Table. In an ill-conceived attempt to catch Arthur’s notice, Meliagaunt kidnaps Queen Guinevere and much of her household from a spring picnic and carries them off to his fortified castle of Gorre, hoping to force one of Arthur’s greatest knights to fight him in order to rescue the queen. Sir Lancelot follows the kidnappers, and when his horse is shot from under him, he risks his reputation when he pursues them in a cart used for transporting prisoners. But after Meliagaunt accuses the queen of adultery and demands a trial by combat to prove his charge, Lancelot, too, disappears, and Merlin and the newly-knighted Sir Gildas are called into action to find Lancelot and bring him back to Camelot in time to save the queen from the stake. Now Gildas finds himself locked in a life-and-death battle to save Lancelot and the young girl Guinevere has chosen for his bride.

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The Way Back

The Way Back

Gavin O’Connor (2020)

What with the movie theaters closed for business and all y’all sheltering in place, it’s a little more difficult to post movie reviews. But a number of films, cut short in their wide theater releases, are being streamed early, and one of these is Gavin O’Connor’s new film with Ben Affleck, The Way Back.

If you’ve seen trailers for TheWay Back, you may feel like you’ve already seen this film in a dozen other “underdog-sports-team-coached-by-a-disgraced-coach-who-needs-to-prove-himself-just-as-much-as-the-team-does” guises, most notably in Hoosiers, of which every other such film is merely a pale imitation. And for about half the movie you’re going to think you were right. But you’re not. And without giving too much away with spoilers, let me just say that, no, the way back for Ben Affleck’s character is not as simple as winning a basketball championship.

Twenty-five years ago, Jack Cunningham was the star basketball player on his high school team, and there is still a banner in his school’s field house acknowledging his being named the conference’s “Player of the Year” that season. Today, he works construction, and he fills his thermos with booze to drink for lunch every day, has a beer in his car that he pours into a paper cup to camouflage his drinking while he drives to Harold’s Bar, where he spends every night. At home he drinks in the shower and has a nightcap when he gets there. And pretty much stays sloshed during every waking hour. He has an estranged wife (big surprise) named Angela (Janina Gavankar of Blindspotting) who is ready to get that divorce and move on with someone new. He has a sister Beth (Michaela Watkins of Brittany Runs a Marathon) with a couple of kids who invites him for Thanksgiving dinner with their mother and who tries to get him to look at his destructive lifestyle but who’s fed up with him, too. It’s impossible not to read Affleck’s own well-publicized substance abuse issues into the character. And certainly to a large extent the film comes across as Affleck’s public confession of his own road to recovery.

But director Gavin O’Connor (who directed Affleck in The Accountant) and screenwriter Brad Ingelsby (Run All Night) don’t let the film become simply about Affleck. They are focused on making Jack Cunningham a character that Affleck’s own experiences help to bring to life.

Jack is in the midst of his dead-end life when he receives a call from the headmaster of his alma mater, Bishop Hayes High School in the Los Angeles suburb of San Pedro, asking him to come in for a meeting. I suppose twelve years of parochial school have left their mark on Jack, because although he ignores a lot of other messages, he does what the priest asks and goes to visit Father Devine (John Aylward of TV’s Saint Elsewhere) at the old school. As you can probably guess, the reason Jack’s been called in is that the school needs a new basketball coach, and needs one immediately. And even though Jack has not been on a basketball court in 25 years, and has  never coached or taught in his life, the old priest offers him the job. If this seems more than a little implausible, that’s because it is.

But the film goes to some lengths to justify the appointment. The team’s head coach has just gone down with a heart attack in midseason, and the next game is in a couple of days, so there is no time to do a thorough search for a qualified coach with genuine credentials. Here’s a celebrated alumnus of the school with a storied history in the sport, let’s grab him in the short term. As for the assistant coach, Dan, the school’s algebra teacher (Al Madrigal of TVs About a Boy), it turns out he has a mother with MS who needs his care in the evenings, so he is not able to spend as much time after school and at night to work with the team to the extent he would need to as head coach. And so, after an evening of drinking what appears to be an entire case of beer, and drunkenly muttering to himself a string of excuses he plans to make to Father Devine, he ends up taking the job.

And of course he inherits a team of slackers, showboats, and hangers on, who are one and nine on the season. And as a coach he does, as convention calls for, whip these kids into shape, teaching them some discipline and responsibility—although in his case it’s a “do as I say, not as I do” kind of discipline, since he still has little self-discipline of his own. For awhile he does ease off on the drinking somewhat, but during games his sideline behavior and his barrage of foul language when calls do not go his way again stretch the limits of plausibility. Would referees in a high school basketball game really allow this kind of behavior on the part of a coach, particularly in a league of Catholic schools? Would the school itself ignore these tantrums? Of course, the team’s chaplain, Father Whelan (Jeremy Radin, a poet whose collection Dear Sal my wife has enjoyed), does speak to Jack several times about his language, but to no avail, and it’s treated essentially in a comic way. But it’s a bit of a stretch.

And Jack does have a positive influence on his players generally, most notably the shy, self-deprecating but immensely talented Brandon Durrett (Brandon Wilson), in whose family life Jack recognizes a reflection of his own relationship with his father, a revelation that goes some way in explaining some of the unhealthy choices he’s made in his own life.

The team does turn around and begins winning, and when they make the playoffs after beating their chief rivals, you seem to know right where you are and you feel fairly certain you’ve got the ending figured out. Only thing is, you have this nagging feeling that things aren’t quite working out as they should for Jack—he still is something of a jerk and you might be getting as annoyed with him as his wife and sister are. This redemption-through-sports thing doesn’t seem to be working for him the way it’s supposed to, damn it.

And that’s where this film transcends its genre. Jack’s got problems too deep for an easy fix, and those problems finally are brought home to us in the movie’s third act. I can’t elaborate without spoiling the movie, but Affleck and company deserve credit for exploring the complexities that may lie behind substance abuse issues, and the slow and intricate pathway to recovery. This was a courageous movie for Affleck to make, and he demonstrates in it what an underrated actor he really is, delivering a performance that ranks with his tormented Superman in Hollywoodland as one of his best.

Other performances in the film are fine, but most of the other characters have little to do, as everything else is subsidiary to Jack and his issues. The other real star of the film is basketball: The scenes on the court are beautifully choreographed and exciting to watch. They don’t quite make up for the cancelation of March Madness this year, but they might help feed your yearning a bit. Three Tennysons for this one.

NOW AVAILABLE:

KnightOfTheCart

“The Knight of the Cart,” fifth novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing, at https://encirclepub.com/product/theknightofthecart/
You can also order from Amazon at
https://www.amazon.com/Knight-Cart-MERLIN-MYS…/…/ref=sr_1_1…
OR an electronic version from Barnes and Noble at
https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-knight-of-…/1133349679…

Here’s what the book is about:
The embittered Sir Meliagaunt is overlooked by King Arthur when a group of new knights, including Gildas of Cornwall, are appointed to the Round Table. In an ill-conceived attempt to catch Arthur’s notice, Meliagaunt kidnaps Queen Guinevere and much of her household from a spring picnic and carries them off to his fortified castle of Gorre, hoping to force one of Arthur’s greatest knights to fight him in order to rescue the queen. Sir Lancelot follows the kidnappers, and when his horse is shot from under him, he risks his reputation when he pursues them in a cart used for transporting prisoners. But after Meliagaunt accuses the queen of adultery and demands a trial by combat to prove his charge, Lancelot, too, disappears, and Merlin and the newly-knighted Sir Gildas are called into action to find Lancelot and bring him back to Camelot in time to save the queen from the stake. Now Gildas finds himself locked in a life-and-death battle to save Lancelot and the young girl Guinevere has chosen for his bride.

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Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall

Hilary Mantel (2009)

Ruud Rating

4 Shakespeares

Like a lot of people, my concept of Thomas More, or I suppose I should say “Saint Thomas More,” has been shaped by two major texts. The first, his famous literary text Utopia, reveals him to be a brilliant Renaissance thinker, a rational humanist philosopher whose thought, particularly as regards political philosophy, made him admired throughout sixteenth-century Europe. The other, Robert Bolt’s play and later Oscar-winning film A Man for All Seasons, depicts the embattled More as a principled man of conscience who, though appointed Chancellor of England under King Henry VIII, refused to support Henry’s divorce of his first wife Catherine of Aragon, his marriage to Anne Boleyn, and most importantly his installation of himself as  head of the English Church, in place of the Pope. His opposition cost More his life but also made him remembered as a martyr and ultimately a saint by the Roman Catholic Church. Indeed, he was revered in his own time and respected by his contemporaries, noble and common alike, and after his death he was lauded by Catholic scholars and clergy in particular, giving him a reputation that lay behind Bolt’s modern depiction of the gentle, kindly, reasonable statesman.

Thomas Cromwell, on the other hand, usually portrayed as King Henry’s Enforcer, has come down to us portrayed as an unscrupulous, self-seeking Machiavellian, presented by Bolt as More’s opposite, ready to do anything Henry wants in order to enhance his own wealth and power: a man, in contrast to Saint Thomas, with no moral center at all. Ruthless and corrupt, Cromwell is associated with the dissolution of the monasteries, instrumental in taking their wealth for the greedy king (and enriching himself in the process). Much of this reputation comes from the picture painted by the sixteenth century Cardinal Reginald Pole, writing from a purely Catholic viewpoint. In Bolt’s play, Cromwell essentially hounds More to his death.

Hilary Mantel’s Booker-prize winning 2009 novel Wolf Hall, however, turns this long-accepted characterization on its head. More’s avid support of orthodox Catholicism is assumed in his traditional reputation, but Mantel does not ignore what is seldom remembered about this support: that it included, in his position at Chancellor, the determined opposition to the Protestant reformation, which he saw as dangerous heresy, and the determined rooting out of such heresy in England—including an unflinching support of the punishment for such heresy, burning at the stake. The Benedictine monk Richard Bainfield was burned on More’s watch in November of 1531, and at least two others were burned before he resigned as Chancellor in May of 1532.

And in telling the story of Henry’s divorce from Catherine, his marriage to Anne, and most importantly his break with Rome, Mantel focuses in great detail on her chosen protagonist, the much reviled Thomas Cromwell. What if, she seems to ask, Cromwell has been unfairly maligned by history—by his contemporaries who were jealous of his political skill and legal acumen, by members of the court who perhaps looked down upon him for his humble birth, by Catholics who saw him as ruthless because of his support for the Protestant cause in England.

In Mantel’s reconsideration, Cromwell comes across as interested in his own advancement, certainly, and proud of his rise from the son of a blacksmith to the heights of power in Henry’s court, but hardly unscrupulous. He is also a man fiercely loyal to his first master, Cardinal Wolsey, and then to the king himself. He is someone who sees the practical means of accomplishing the things that his superiors want done, and finds the argument that will convince others to go along with the plan. He is a born negotiator and practical man of business, and finds ways to bring people into agreement without force or the threat of violence. He is, in short, a modern man in a society with at least one foot in the Middle Ages, and so comes across to his contemporaries as untrustworthy—the king tells him at one point that he keeps him around because he is “cunning as a bag of serpents.”

But Mantel’s Cromwell is more than an unthinking enforcer of the king’s will. He is a dedicated reformer who has committed the entire New Testament to memory, and who despises the cult of saints, the veneration of relics, the supremacy of the papacy, even the doctrine of transubstantiation, muttering about all these things “show me where it says this in the scriptures”; and he is an advocate of Tyndale, whose English Bible he praises, though not where it might get him into trouble. And he is a kind and generous man, who respects and often tries to help enemies whom he has bested, whether it is the former Queen Catherine or her daughter Mary (whom he advises the king to be kind to), or More himself, who Cromwell consistently and sincerely tries to save by convincing him to sign the paper that will prevent his execution.

The novel begins with a young Cromwell, perhaps fourteen years old, being brutally beaten by his cruel, drunken father, a Putney blacksmith. Next we see him in 1527, approximately 40 years of age (his birthdate is unknown—to him or us), acting as a trusted adviser to Henry’s trusted minister Cardinal Wolsey. The intervening years, during which Cromwell fled to the continent, spending time among the merchants of Antwerp, in the French army, and working as an accountant at a Florentine bank picking up an education and several languages along the way, are told sparingly in short flashbacks as the narrative moves along.

The story, told in the present tense with Cromwell as the focal character, unfolds not so much as a study of the past but a re-experiencing of it as it is happening. Mantel’s scrupulous, exhausting research brings every scene to life, whether it has to do with the sudden deaths of Cromwell’s wife and daughters from the dreaded “Sweating Sickness” or Henry’s crushing disappointment at the stillborn second child with Anne. Things occur in the novel not as the fulfillment of historical facts we already know but as the unforeseen developments of the book’s current situation. We follow Cromwell’s willing assistance in Wolsey’s dissolution of the northern monasteries, we see how he survives Wolsey’s fall from grace after his inability to secure Henry’s divorce from Catherine, and we see Cromwell remain loyal to his former master even while rising in the king’s service, successfully maneuvering Catherine’s divorce and Anne’s rise to power in a court beset with rivalries. And we see his rivalry with More climax, to his chagrin, with More’s execution in 1535 just as the novel ends. It is a rivalry underscored vividly when Cromwell, grieving his wife and daughter, recalls Tyndale’s translation of Paul’s I Corinthians 13:“now abideth faith, hope and love, even these three; but the greatest of these is love”—and he recalls how More condemned this translation as “wicked,” insisting on the term “charity.” More would, he thinks, “for a difference in your Greek, kill you.”

Certainly More is not depicted as wholly unlikeable, but Mantel makes him a man just as self-seeking as Cromwell, particularly with regard to his own reputation. He comes across as human, not as a plaster saint. Anne, too, is less sympathetic than she is often made, coming across as manipulative and spiteful—and dangerous, while the often maligned Wolsey is, like Cromwell himself, far more sympathetic here than in most portrayals. Pompous and self-serving as he is, his motives are far more benevolent than often portrayed. The king is a man of great passions and shifting moods, but seems a real person and a largely sympathetic one. Jane Seymour, destined to become Henry’s third wife, also makes an appearance here, charming Cromwell and the reader as well.

It is from the Seymour manor Wolf Hall in Wiltshire that the novel’s title comes, a house that, in the novel, is the site of a scandal involving male members of the Seymour family preying on women. Wolf Hall, it seems, is what the Renaissance would have called a microcosm of the whole English court—a pack of wolves through which Cromwell must maneuver. This is a novel that I did not want to end, despite its more than 600 pages, and that reaction probably explains the Booker Prize it won. It also explains the success of its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, which continues the Cromwell story and which won Mantel her second Booker Prize. The third installment, The Mirror and the Light, has just been published, completing the trilogy, which I intend to finish myself as soon as possible. I recommend that you do the same.

NOW AVAILABLE:

KnightOfTheCart

“The Knight of the Cart,” fifth novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing, at https://encirclepub.com/product/theknightofthecart/
You can also order from Amazon at
https://www.amazon.com/Knight-Cart-MERLIN-MYS…/…/ref=sr_1_1…
OR an electronic version from Barnes and Noble at
https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-knight-of-…/1133349679…

Here’s what the book is about:
The embittered Sir Meliagaunt is overlooked by King Arthur when a group of new knights, including Gildas of Cornwall, are appointed to the Round Table. In an ill-conceived attempt to catch Arthur’s notice, Meliagaunt kidnaps Queen Guinevere and much of her household from a spring picnic and carries them off to his fortified castle of Gorre, hoping to force one of Arthur’s greatest knights to fight him in order to rescue the queen. Sir Lancelot follows the kidnappers, and when his horse is shot from under him, he risks his reputation when he pursues them in a cart used for transporting prisoners. But after Meliagaunt accuses the queen of adultery and demands a trial by combat to prove his charge, Lancelot, too, disappears, and Merlin and the newly-knighted Sir Gildas are called into action to find Lancelot and bring him back to Camelot in time to save the queen from the stake. Now Gildas finds himself locked in a life-and-death battle to save Lancelot and the young girl Guinevere has chosen for his bride.

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Emma.

Emma.

Autumn de Wilde (2020)

Three Tennysons/Half Shakespeare

When I first heard there was a new version of Emma coming out, I admit to being a little bit skeptical. Didn’t we just have one of those? But that was just one of those tricks of age, in which after you turn 40 everything seems like it happened “just a couple of years ago, wasn’t it?” Turns out Gwyneth Paltrow’s crack at Jane Austen’s clueless heroine was 24 years ago, in 1996 (two years before her Oscar-winning stab at Hamlet in Shakespeare in Love). I suppose if Little Women can be remade for every new generation, why not Emma as well, which is after all a more brilliant if less beloved novel.

The latest film iteration of Jane Austen’s classic novel is directed by first-time director Autumn de Wilde. Coincidentally, the Gwyneth Paltrow Emma was also made by a first-time director, Douglas McGrath, who went on to direct Company Men, Nicholas Nickleby, and I Don’t Know How She Does It. But in McGrath’s case, he was coming from the world of screenwriting, and had just been nominated for an Oscar for co-writing Bullets Over Broadway with Woody Allen, and he had also written the screenplay for Emma (or I guess co-wrote it with Jane Austen). De Wilde is coming from a very successful career as a photographer and a director of music videos, so this is the first feature film she has been involved with.

Her background, though, helps to explain two of the greatest strengths of the new Emma. No doubt her background in the music industry was helpful in putting together the film’s notable score. The music is composed by Isobel Waller-Bridge (who did the music for the hit TV series Fleabag, which stars her sister Phoebe Waller-Bridge) and by David Schweitzer (longtime television composer with dozens of credits, including The Crown). There is a particular theme as each new character enters the movie, though the music is never intrusive. More delightful are versions of English or Scottish folk songs, like the Watersons’ version of “Country Life” or John Rutter’s of “O Waly Waly,” that give a flavor of the early nineteenth-century English countryside to the proceedings.

De Wilde’s background in photography might also help to explain the beautiful cinematography  and art direction of the film. Along with her cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt (Low Down), production designer Kave Quinn (Judy, Far From the Madding Crowd) and costume designer Alexandra Byrne (Oscar winner for Elizabeth: The Golden Age), de Wilde creates beautiful vistas of aristocratic houses, quaint villages and beautiful parks and gardens with gorgeous Georgian dresses, hats and high collars. One scene, in which Emma, costumed in a dress with a leafy green print, has a significant conversation with family friend George Knightley under a flowering tree, is unforgettable for the way costume and design enhance Austen’s dialogue.

The reliance on great country houses in which Emma and Mr. Knightley live to give photogenic and aristocratic beauty to Emma’s milieu is, I think, one flaw in the film, however. We are apparently meant to see Emma and her father as if they are landed gentry in the vein of the Downton Abbey cast. When we first see Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy of TV’s Peaky Blinders), she is making a bouquet to bring to her governess on the day of the older woman’s wedding. She is not picking the flowers herself, but has servants to do that, and she simply points to which flowers she wants to include. While the scene does much to underscore the pampered and indulged existence she leads, the hordes of servants around her and around Knightley in their huge manor houses have no equivalent in Austen’s novel. To be sure, we know from the beginning of the novel—and of the film, which quotes directly from the novel—that Emma is “handsome, clever, and rich,” but she’s not that rich. She just happens to be the queen bee in this small village. Still, I suppose if you’re wanting to show a contemporary audience Emma’s social superiority to those around her with a quick shorthand, that’s the quickest way.

Aside from that issue, the script, written by New Zealand novelist Eleanor Catton (whose novel The Luminaries made her the youngest author ever to win the Man Booker prize in 2013) is a quite faithful adaptation of Austen’s novel. In short, the story follows Emma’s attempts, after successfully having matched her governess Miss Taylor (Gemma Whelan of Game of Thrones), with her neighbor Mr. Weston (Rupert Graves of TV’s Sherlock), decides to turn her matchmaking skills to a bigger challenge: finding a match that will allow her orphan friend Harriet Smith (Mia Goth of Everest) to “marry up.” With the blind faith that she knows better than Harriet herself what the girl needs, Emma convinces Harriet to turn down an offer of marriage from the honest farmer Robert Martin and tries to steer her toward a match with local vicar Philip Elton (Josh O’Connor from The Crown), until she realizes that Elton has designs on herself. Meanwhile Emma has designs on Mr. Weston’s somewhat narcissistic son Frank Churchill (Callum Turner from Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindewald), who is a bit of a flirtatious cad but stands to inherit a huge estate from his uncle. And Knightley (Johnny Flynn from Beast) seems to be most interested in Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson of White Lie), the poor but accomplished niece of villagers Miss and Mrs. Bates, who dote on her. Yet there seems to be a clear bond between Emma and old family friend Knightley, who bestows on her the familiar and sometimes unwelcome paternal guidance of a big brother.

If you can’t tell how these complications untie themselves I won’t spoil it for you. Let me just say that Taylor-Joy, in the title role, seemed to me at first too immature for the part, but then I had to remind myself that Emma in the novel is not yet 21 years old. Taylor-Joy was 23 when filming this movie—the same age that Paltrow was for the 1996 version. Paltrow, however, seemed more poised in the role, and played Emma as someone who seemed to be motivated chiefly by sincerely wanting to help her friends. Taylor-Joy seems more of the spoiled rich girl whose machinations are motivated more by her desire to exercise her own powers of manipulation and her enjoyment in having Harriet as a kind of loyal serf. As that serf, Goth is appropriately insecure, and wholly sympathetic. Flynn, better known as a musician (his recording of his original song “Queen Bee” plays over the credits at the end of the film and was released as a single alongside the movie), does a competent job, though he may lack the gravitas that Jeremy Northam brought to the role in 1996. He plays Knightley somewhat more emotionally than Austen’s text suggests, and whether that comes from him, de Wilde, or Catton’s script is hard to say, but it does bring more sexuality to the performance—at least my wife thought so, and so may you. He does get a nice duet with Anderson’s Jane Fairfax at the piano (of “Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes”) that adds to the folksy delights of the soundtrack. As Churchill, Turner comes across as more likable than you might expect. As Jane Fairfax, Anderson is quite restrained, a kind of ice queen, though there are hints of some great passion buried inside. Deep, deep inside.

But in terms of memorable performances, it is Bill Nighy (Love Actually), as Emma’s hypochondriacal father who feels a draft in every corner of the house and barricades himself behind screens, and Miranda Hart (of TV’s Call the Midwife) as the annoyingly chattering Miss Bates who becomes the brunt of Emma’s unthinking cruel humor, who absolutely steal the show. These two performances in relatively minor roles lift the film into the “must see” category.

So, despite a few quibbles about what the film has done with the setting and a few of the characters, on the whole this is a worthy adaptation of a great novel. Three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare for this one.

NOW AVAILABLE:

KnightOfTheCart

“The Knight of the Cart,” fifth novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing, at https://encirclepub.com/product/theknightofthecart/
You can also order from Amazon at
https://www.amazon.com/Knight-Cart-MERLIN-MYS…/…/ref=sr_1_1…
OR an electronic version from Barnes and Noble at
https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-knight-of-…/1133349679…

Here’s what the book is about:
The embittered Sir Meliagaunt is overlooked by King Arthur when a group of new knights, including Gildas of Cornwall, are appointed to the Round Table. In an ill-conceived attempt to catch Arthur’s notice, Meliagaunt kidnaps Queen Guinevere and much of her household from a spring picnic and carries them off to his fortified castle of Gorre, hoping to force one of Arthur’s greatest knights to fight him in order to rescue the queen. Sir Lancelot follows the kidnappers, and when his horse is shot from under him, he risks his reputation when he pursues them in a cart used for transporting prisoners. But after Meliagaunt accuses the queen of adultery and demands a trial by combat to prove his charge, Lancelot, too, disappears, and Merlin and the newly-knighted Sir Gildas are called into action to find Lancelot and bring him back to Camelot in time to save the queen from the stake. Now Gildas finds himself locked in a life-and-death battle to save Lancelot and the young girl Guinevere has chosen for his bride.

515Y3BMESSL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_

The Last of the Mohicans

The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757

James Fenimore Cooper (1826)

In my ongoing quest to read in my retirement a slew of books I neglected to read in my youth, I pulled this classic novel off my shelf a few weeks ago and with a little bit of trepidation, knowing something of Cooper’s up-and-down critical reception, plunged right in. James Fenimore Cooper was the first significant American novelist—the first  to gain an international reputation, the first to write a worldwide best-seller. His Leatherstocking Tales, a series of five romantic novels set in the American wilderness chronicling the career of frontiersman Natty Bumppo (better known as Hawk-eye), were the most popular American novels of the first half of the nineteenth century, and continue to be the most popular nineteenth-century American novels throughout Europe. The Last of the Mohicans, the second book of the series, has consistently been the most read and most appreciated of all Cooper’s works, and remains so, having given rise to at least ten films produced in the United States alone, not to mention radio, television, comic book, and opera versions of the story.

It’s not difficult to see why Cooper’s novels gained such a wide readership. Their style and tone derived in no small part from the novels of the most popular English author of the day, Sir Walter Scott, father of the “historical novel” and purveyor of romance and mythic paragons of chivalry like the very popular Ivanhoe. Cooper’s own mythic creations—the image of the honest, practical, self-reliant frontiersman whose nobility rests on his own talents and not on his parents’ bloodline; and the image of the “noble savage,” the indigenous native, uncorrupted by civilization, who represents the unfallen goodness of humankind. Cooper’s Hawk-eye embodies the first of these mythic beings, and his Indian companions Chingachgook and Uncas (the novel’s title characters) the second.

The book’s historical setting is the French and Indian War, the American branch of the Seven Years War between England and France and their allies. Both Great Britain and France employed Native American allies in the war in North America. Cooper focuses on events surrounding the British surrender of Fort William Henry, on Lake George in upstate New York. British Colonel George Munro commanded the fort under the supervision of General Webb, quartered with a much larger garrison at Fort Edward. In early August of 1757, Munro was besieged by some 7,000 troops under the French General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm. He pleaded with Webb favor reinforcements, but Webb felt he could not spare any, since his army was the only thing standing between the French and Albany, and he advised Munro to negotiate the best terms he could get with Montcalm. And agreement was reached that allowed Munro to withdraw under parole, yielding the fort two Montcalm but being allowed to withdraw peacefully to Fort Edward. However, Montcalm’s Indian allies, whom Cooper identifies as Hurons, angered at being denied the spoils of the battle, attacked the retreating column, killing perhaps as many as 200 and taking hundreds more captive.

Cooper sensationalized the massacre, claiming hundreds more dead. But chiefly he personalized the plot, introducing Hawk-eye and his two Delaware companions as scouts for the British army, and two daughters of Colonel Munro, Cora and her younger half-sister Alice, who become pawns in a deadly game of love and passion between the British and the Huron tribe of French allies. To these characters Cooper adds Major Duncan Heyward, a British officer from Virginia who falls in love with Alice, and David Gamut, the “singing master,” who teaches music, specifically the singing of psalms, and who seems wildly out of place on the frontier. Finally, there is Magua, otherwise known as le Renard subtle (the “sly fox”), the chief villain of the piece: a Huron chief cast out of his tribe for drunkenness, he is conniving to win back the favor of his tribe by deceiving the British forces. In fact, he is seeking revenge on Colonel Munro, whom he blames for giving him whiskey and then whipping him for drunkenness. He is also lusting after Cora, and connives to take her captive.

The novel begins with Major Heyward accompanying Cora and Alice through the forest from headquarters to join their father at Fort William Henry. They are joined by the psalmodist Gamut, but have unwittingly chosen Magua as their guide, and the cunning fox is leading the completely out of the way. Natty Bumppo, Chingachgook and Uncas happen upon them, and their encounter causes Magua to flee. Expecting Magua to return with a war band of Hurons, Hawk-eye and the Mohicans lead Heyward, Gamut, and the women to a cave they know concealed on an island in the river. Magua and his war band capture the original group of four, but Magua says he will release the other three if Cora consents to be his wife. The four are rescued by Hawk-eye and his companions, and ultimately reach Fort William Henry, but find it under siege by the French and Hurons. They are able to get into the fort, but Colonel Munro is forced to surrender to the overwhelming French force. Alice and Cora are among the evacuees who are attacked and largely massacred after the surrender, but Magua takes both of them captive and takes the back to the Huron village, with David Gamut in hapless pursuit.

Of course, Hawk-eye, Major Colonel Munro, Uncas and Chingachgook pursue Magua, and, meeting Gamut at the Huron camp (the Hurons have spared his life, considering him a harmless lunatic), Gamut reveals that Alice is being held here by the Hurons, but that Magua has taken Cora to the neighboring Lanape or Delaware tribe. I won’t reveal any spoilers here, but I will say that the rescue of the women involves some interesting disguises, such as that of a French medicine man and, I kid you not, a large bear. It also involves a tortuous ordeal for Uncas, who it seems wants Cora just as badly as Magua does.

There is no doubt that the adventure of the story is appealing and entertaining. There seems to be no doubt that Cooper’s image of the American frontiersman and the “noble savage” were effective and have stayed in our national psyche for two centuries. But there are aspects of the book that make it hard to swallow for contemporary readers. Cooper’s idea that the Indians are a dying race (Hawk-eye’s companions are, after all the “last” of the Mohicans), being replaced by the superior, more highly evolved Europeans, is an unspoken but manifest assumption in the novel. Cooper’s attitude toward race in general is far from PC: Cora, Munro’s older daughter, is the product of a liaison with a woman who is described as having been at least partly of African descent. This seems to be what makes her attractive to Magua as well as Uncas. But her marriage prospects seem undesirable at best, from Munro’s point of view, and tragic at worst, from her own. Marriage, or cohabitation, between races seems a doomed path as Cooper presents it.

Another annoying aspect of the book for a contemporary reader is Cooper’s characterization of the two daughters. Alice, the younger, blonde daughter sired by Munro on his legitimate, white wife, is a delicate flower who does a lot of screaming and fainting like the helpless damsel in distress of traditional romance. Cora, on the other hand, is assertive, has a mind of her own, does whatever she can to protect Alice, answers for herself that she is willing to go off with Magua if it means saving her sister. And yet it is Alice that Major Heyward is drawn to. I think any modern reader will ask “Why?” As for Cora, she’s much better off if she goes with Uncas, but as I said before, that connection appears doomed.

It was Mark Twain who drove the first real nail into Cooper’s literary reputation in his 1895 essay “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.” The master of colloquial style chiefly took Cooper to task for his formal diction, wordiness, and imprecise use of language. Describing The Deerslayer, another of the Leatherstocking ales, Twain concludes

It has no invention; it has no order, system, sequence or result; it has no lifelikeness, no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality; its characters are confusedly drawn, and by their acts and words they prove  that they are not the sort of people the author claims that they are; its humor is pathetic; its pathos is funny; its conversations are—oh! Indescribable; its love-scenes odious; its English a crime against the language…

Don’t hold back, Mr. Clemens, tell us what you really think. Of course, Cooper has had his defenders too over the years, but Twain’s criticisms of Cooper’s style in particular seem well founded. There is no doubt that The Last of the Mohicans is a significant book in America’s literary history: It set the pattern for the historical novel in America, it looms large in the creation of American myths, it has influenced countless writers since its publication and it has been one of the most popular books ever written by an American novelist. It’s not the Great American Novel that its first readers thought, but it is far from insignificant, and you probably ought to read it—but be prepared for some less-than-enlightened points of view.

NOW AVAILABLE:

KnightOfTheCart

“The Knight of the Cart,” fifth novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing, at https://encirclepub.com/product/theknightofthecart/
You can also order from Amazon at
https://www.amazon.com/Knight-Cart-MERLIN-MYS…/…/ref=sr_1_1…
OR an electronic version from Barnes and Noble at
https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-knight-of-…/1133349679…

Here’s what the book is about:
The embittered Sir Meliagaunt is overlooked by King Arthur when a group of new knights, including Gildas of Cornwall, are appointed to the Round Table. In an ill-conceived attempt to catch Arthur’s notice, Meliagaunt kidnaps Queen Guinevere and much of her household from a spring picnic and carries them off to his fortified castle of Gorre, hoping to force one of Arthur’s greatest knights to fight him in order to rescue the queen. Sir Lancelot follows the kidnappers, and when his horse is shot from under him, he risks his reputation when he pursues them in a cart used for transporting prisoners. But after Meliagaunt accuses the queen of adultery and demands a trial by combat to prove his charge, Lancelot, too, disappears, and Merlin and the newly-knighted Sir Gildas are called into action to find Lancelot and bring him back to Camelot in time to save the queen from the stake. Now Gildas finds himself locked in a life-and-death battle to save Lancelot and the young girl Guinevere has chosen for his bride.

call-of-the-wild

The Call of the Wild

The Call of the Wild

(Chris Sanders 2020)

When I was in eighth grade, I was given a copy of Jack London’s classic dog-and-Yukon adventure novel The Call of the Wild, and it opened up a whole world of literature for me that wasn’t sports or science fiction or juvenile fiction, but that dealt with more adult themes. I suppose London’s short novel was a kind of a YA book before such a category really existed, but it was definitely the first novel I’d read in which the main human character died, or that dealt with Darwinian implications on a kind of a personal level. Anyway I moved on from London to Dickens and Twain and Steinbeck and a whole host of books that I found on a teacher-generated list of “books you should read before you go to college.” And then I majored in English.

So you can see what a central place The Call of the Wild has always had in my personal history. Imagine my chagrin when I first viewed the 1935 Clark Gable adaptation of the novel on an old-time movie channel back when I was in high school. There was a big dog in it. And there was a sympathetic owner named John Thornton. And, further, it was set in the Yukon during the gold rush of 1898. There were a couple of scenes that actually bore some resemblance to scenes in the novel, but nobody was going to kill off Gable and Buck never really heard the call of the wild, so I’m not sure how the title fit the film’s story. Anyway, I was pretty appalled. After all, this is a book that has never been out of print since its first publication in 1903, so it clearly tells a story that has always appealed to readers in all times and places, so why would you mess with it? And when I started seeing trailers for a new Call of the Wild film with Harrison Ford (maybe the contemporary equivalent of a Clark Gable) and produced by Disney no less, with its reputation of sanitizing classic stories to make then more family-friendly, I didn’t hold out much hope for this one.

But I got a surprise when I started to watch the film and it actually seemed to be following, to a large extent, the actual plot of the book. As in the novel, Buck, a large and intelligent cross between a Saint Bernard and a Rough Collie, is raised and somewhat pampered by Judge Miller (Bradley Whitford in what amounts to a cameo) in Santa Clara Valley in California. But when potential sled-dogs become a valuable commodity after the gold strike in the Yukon, Buck is dognapped and shipped to Seattle in a crate, and when he is finally released from his crate, he is beaten into submission, shown the “law of the club,” by a “man in a red sweater.” In the novel this is a powerfully disturbing scene. The current film underplays it somewhat, showing Buck being struck only once and that only in a reflected shadow rather than full-on, so it’s much less disturbing, and Disney keeps its PG rating.

Buck is sold, again following the novel’s plot, to a pair of French-Canadian dispatchers employed by the Canadian government, François and Perrault (Omar Sy of Jurassic World) and Françoise (feminized from the novel’s François, and played here by Cara Gee from TV’s The Expanse). Buck is trained as a sled dog, and the film includes some comic scenes as he learns to pull with the team and to follow directions. He also learns a lot from the other pack members, and is ruled with an iron paw by the pack leader, a vicious white husky named Spitz. At one point, Buck stands up to Spitz, essentially challenging him for dominance in the pack. In the book, Buck kills Spitz. But not to worry if you’re planning to take your kids: Disney just has Buck win the fight and send Spitz packing. So still PG, folks.

The turning point of the film, and the novel, comes when the kindly French-Canadian dispatchers are ordered home by the Canadian government who have suspended the mail service in their area, forcing them to sell their dogs. Buck is acquired by an ignorant and brutal newcomer named Hal (Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens), who has no idea how to handle his dogs, and drives them nearly to death. Enter the mild mannered John Thornton (Ford), who acquires Buck  (I won’t tell you how here, since I’ll try to avoid spoilers for the most significant points of the plot) and decides to take the dog into a part of the country where no one is likely to disturb them. In the film, Thornton is mourning the loss of a child and has separated from his wife and come north not to search for gold but to heal and to leave the world behind.

In London’s novel, from the time Buck reaches the Yukon and begins to grow accustomed to the rigors of life so far from human civilization, he is fascinated and attracted by timber wolves who appear when he is alone, and seem to speak to him of another life, a life more natural for his species than living a soft life with human beings. This urge, this “call of the wild,” beckons Buck more and more frequently as he stays with Thornton, and in the film the call becomes especially strong in the lonely wilderness where the man and dog live together. He takes to going off with a young she-wolf for periods of time, but always returning to Thornton’s cabin.

In the novel, Thornton is eventually slain by a band of Yeehat Indians while Buck is away—and Buck, in revenge, attacks and kills several of the Yeehats, after which, with all ties to human beings severed, he joins the wolfpack, and becomes its leader, singing “a song of the younger world, which is the song of the pack.” That ending would almost certainly ruin the necessary PG rating, and would be pretty insensitive to Canadian First Nation considerations, so you can bet that’s not how the movie ends. It’s our vindictive old friend Hal who serves here as the villain, but any other details would be spoilers, so you’ll have to see it yourself. With your kids, since, as I’ve said, it has a PG rating.

The film has some beautiful scenery that might make you want to take a trip to the Klondike yourself before global warming destroys it. Ford is sympathetic and appropriately understated as the gruff, crotchety Thornton, and he narrates the film with a fitting growl—a fact that might make you think twice about whether you think he dies at the end or not. Sy and Gee are relatable and believable as the husband-wife mail delivery team. As Hal, however, Stevens is a melodramatic one-dimensional villain more reminiscent of one of Disney’s cartoon heavies like Gaston or even, God help us, Cruella Deville. And perhaps this is where Chris Sanders (best known for his direction of cartoon features like How to Train Your Dragon and Lilo & Stitch) and screenwriter Michael Green (chiefly known for superhero flicks, like Logan, Green Lantern and TV’s Smallville) err, veering from London’s material and trying to transform an original story that has Buck yearning to “wash his muzzle to the eyes in warm blood” into a Disney family cartoon narrative.

Which brings us to Buck himself. At least Clark Gable’s version—and all other previous adaptations of the novel—used a real dog to play Buck. Sure, it’s probably a lot easier to create a CGI version of a dog that will do exactly what you want him to in each scene because he is, basically a cartoon, than to train a real dog to perform the kind of stunts he would have to do in a film like this. But anyone who owns a dog, or four as I do, is going to be a little bit annoyed at the substitution of a CGI model for the real thing, especially in adapting a novel best known for its literary naturalism. There’s something not a little ironic in a story all about a canine’s abandonment of the artificial world of human civilization using an artificial creation to substitute for an actual canine actor.

And so I’m somewhat torn in evaluating this movie. It deserves praise for following London’s story relatively closely. The beginning, with its Buck-as-Beethoven comedy, and the end, with its Dan-Stevens-as-Snidely-Whiplash excesses, are the worst parts of the movie, and are unworthy of the material (who thinks London’s book is a kiddie story?). The middle of the movie, focusing on the relationship between Thornton and Buck, is the truest and the best part. Overall, I’m giving this film two Jaqueline Susanns and half a Tennyson. See it if you want, but don’t expect Lassie Come Home or Old Yeller. It’s more like There Will Be Blood reimagined as Mary Poppins.

NOW AVAILABLE:

KnightOfTheCart

“The Knight of the Cart,” fifth novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing, at https://encirclepub.com/product/theknightofthecart/
You can also order from Amazon at
https://www.amazon.com/Knight-Cart-MERLIN-MYS…/…/ref=sr_1_1…
OR an electronic version from Barnes and Noble at
https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-knight-of-…/1133349679…

Here’s what the book is about:
The embittered Sir Meliagaunt is overlooked by King Arthur when a group of new knights, including Gildas of Cornwall, are appointed to the Round Table. In an ill-conceived attempt to catch Arthur’s notice, Meliagaunt kidnaps Queen Guinevere and much of her household from a spring picnic and carries them off to his fortified castle of Gorre, hoping to force one of Arthur’s greatest knights to fight him in order to rescue the queen. Sir Lancelot follows the kidnappers, and when his horse is shot from under him, he risks his reputation when he pursues them in a cart used for transporting prisoners. But after Meliagaunt accuses the queen of adultery and demands a trial by combat to prove his charge, Lancelot, too, disappears, and Merlin and the newly-knighted Sir Gildas are called into action to find Lancelot and bring him back to Camelot in time to save the queen from the stake. Now Gildas finds himself locked in a life-and-death battle to save Lancelot and the young girl Guinevere has chosen for his bride.

nickelboys2-1024x418 (1)

Nickel Boys

The Nickel Boys

Colson Whitehead (2019)

Ruud Rating

4 Shakespeares

In his much anticipated follow-up to his Pulitzer-Prize winning Underground Railroad, Whitehead tells the story of life in a Florida reform “school” for boys, returning to the genre of historical fiction, but without the fantastical elements present in Underground Railroad. Nickel Boys is a relatively short book—a quick read but far from a pleasant one.

The Nickel Boys is a fictionalized version of the story of Florida’s infamous Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, in reality more of a penal institution than a school, which had opened in the Florida panhandle town of Marianna in 1900and remained open until 2011. Run as a reform school by Florida’s state government, The Dozier school had for years been the subject of allegations that boys sent to the academy were systematically subjected to molestation, beatings, torture and even murder by employees and by guards with the knowledge of—and even under the direct supervision of—the “school’s” administrators. When the Florida Department of Law Enforcement finally began an investigation into these allegations in 2010, it was clear that the charges were true, and the U.S. Department of Justice initiated additional investigations in 2011. The University of South Florida began forensic studies of bodies found in scores of burial sites on the campus, revealing the broken bodies of boys who had been beaten to death. The university has determined that at least 81 boys died at the site.

For purposes of his novel, Whitehead has renamed the Dozier School the “Nickel Academy,” though he has kept its location in the Florida panhandle. His protagonist is a fictional boy named Elwood Curtis, an African-American teenager sent to the segregated school in 1964. Elwood is not a typical resident. Most of his fellow inmates, or I suppose I should say “students,” have been sent here for some petty crime or other, or because they’ve been deemed “incorrigible,” or they are indigent and have nowhere else to go, like orphans or wards of the state. Elwood is a model student, who is inspired by the speeches of Martin Luther King that he listens to repeatedly from a record his grandmother gave him, and whom his fellow students regard as a “goody-goody.” He lives with his grandmother, has always sought to be a “good citizen,” has a steady and responsible job, makes excellent grades in school so that his inspiring history teacher, Mr. Hill (a civil rights activist who recognizes Elwood’s standout mind and character) has recommended that he take college classes during his senior year of high school. When Elwood is walking to college one morning, excited for his first class in English literature, he accepts a ride from a black man in a Plymouth. But they are pulled over by the police, who arrest them for grand theft auto. Neither the fact that he was only a passenger nor his previous record prevents the judge from sentencing him to time at the Nickel Academy.

Elwood sees the world as a meritocracy, in which people get what they earn and what they deserve, and so has always striven to do what is necessary to earn and merit life’s rewards. And that belief, along with Dr. King’s ringing rhetoric that he is as good as anyone else and that he lives in a just universe, governs, as well, his life at Nickel, at least at first. “He just had to keep doing what he’d always done: act right,” Elwood believes.

Those ideas are put to the test and found severely wanting in the meat grinder that is Nickel Academy. The system of merits and demerits by which Elwood believes he can work his way out of the school turns out to be a sham rendered subjectively and capriciously by the school’s house wardens. But more importantly, when Elwood instinctively tries to step in to prevent a group of bullies from beating up a young boy, he is taken from his bed in the middle of the night into what is essentially the school’s torture chamber, what the boys refer to as the White House, and is beaten into unconsciousness by the brutal superintendent Maynard Spencer. The beating lands Elwood in the infirmary for weeks, and tears his legs up in such a way that they will never heal. The beating not only harms him physically, but psychologically as well: Whitehead asserts it “had scarred him all over, not just his legs….It had weeviled deep into his personality.”

One close friend Elwood makes at the academy is a boy named Turner, who is far more skeptical about the system, and the world itself, than Elwood. Turner knows that in order to survive the brutalities of Nickel, one needs to keep one’s head down and “go along to get along.” Turner has figured out how to work the system, and survives by understanding what the white people in charge want. He is able to get Elwood an assignment with him to regularly leave the school along with a white guard for “social service” duties: These involve delivering groceries intended for the boys to local stores where shopkeepers will sell them for large profits, and doing chores like painting an old white woman’s gazebo free of charge. Thus the entire establishment profits off of the school, while the boys in the school are exploited and served barely edible food, and nobody wants to ask any questions about the school because it’s in everyone’s interest—or at least everyone’s who matters—to leave it alone.

As Elwood becomes more and more like Turner, he chides himself, lying awake at night and thinking that “In keeping his head down, … he fooled himself that he had prevailed. … In fact he had been ruined. He was like one of those Negroes Dr. King spoke of in his letter from jail, so complacent and sleepy after years of oppression that they had adjusted to it and learned to sleep in it as their only bed.” And accordingly he comes up with a plan to try to obtain justice one more time. Revealing what that is would be spoiler territory I won’t enter.

The last section of the book alternates between scenes from Nickel Academy in 1964 and later scenes from New York City ranging in time from 1968 to 2012. Among other things, we learn how impossible it is to transcend traumatic memories at Nickel, and how those experiences affected the boys’ subsequent lives. The Nickel boys, Whitehead writes, “could have been many things had they not been ruined by that place. Doctors who cure diseases or perform brain surgery, … [S]ure not all of them were geniuses … but they had been denied even the simple pleasure of being ordinary. Hobbled and handicapped before the race even began, never figuring out how to be normal.” The book ends with a jarring twist that that makes the book even more excruciating than it had seemed.

In an NPR interview, Whitehead said when he first read of the Dozier school in 2014, “It dawned on me, if there’s one place like this, there’s dozens and dozens. And where are those places? And what happens to the kids afterward? And immediately, I felt like I wanted to write about it.” Indeed, there were such schools all over the South, and in his acknowledgements he includes books about institutions in Arkansas as well as other states. This is a historical novel with a good deal of contemporary relevance. Whitehead had wanted to begin another book, but felt compelled, after the Trump election encouraged the resurgence of America’s racist underbelly, to deal with this story: The “concentration camps on the border,” according to NPR, led Whitehead to conclude about the Dozier story, “This speaks to a larger culture of impunity.”

The Nickel Boys won 2019’s Kirkus Prize, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. And, deservedly, it was named one of Time magazine’s “Ten Best Books of the Decade.” Four Shakespeares for this must-read novel.

NOW AVAILABLE:

KnightOfTheCart

“The Knight of the Cart,” fifth novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing, at https://encirclepub.com/product/theknightofthecart/
You can also order from Amazon at
https://www.amazon.com/Knight-Cart-MERLIN-MYS…/…/ref=sr_1_1…
OR an electronic version from Barnes and Noble at
https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-knight-of-…/1133349679…

Here’s what the book is about:
The embittered Sir Meliagaunt is overlooked by King Arthur when a group of new knights, including Gildas of Cornwall, are appointed to the Round Table. In an ill-conceived attempt to catch Arthur’s notice, Meliagaunt kidnaps Queen Guinevere and much of her household from a spring picnic and carries them off to his fortified castle of Gorre, hoping to force one of Arthur’s greatest knights to fight him in order to rescue the queen. Sir Lancelot follows the kidnappers, and when his horse is shot from under him, he risks his reputation when he pursues them in a cart used for transporting prisoners. But after Meliagaunt accuses the queen of adultery and demands a trial by combat to prove his charge, Lancelot, too, disappears, and Merlin and the newly-knighted Sir Gildas are called into action to find Lancelot and bring him back to Camelot in time to save the queen from the stake. Now Gildas finds himself locked in a life-and-death battle to save Lancelot and the young girl Guinevere has chosen for his bride.

Ruud Reviews Movie Rating Scale

4 Shakespeares

This is a great film.
You need to see it, or incur my wrath.

 

Tennysons

This movie is worth seeing.
I’d go if I were you. But then, I go to a lot of movies.

 

2 Jacqueline Susanns

If you like this kind of movie, you’ll probably be entertained by this one.
I wasn’t all that much.

 

1 Robert Southey

Skip it.
This one really isn’t worth your money. If you’re compelled to see it anyway, at least be smart enough to wait until you can see it for less money on Netflix or HBO. If you go see it in the theater, I may never speak to you again.