Colson Whitehead On The True Story Of Abuse And Injustice Behind 'Nickel Boys'
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
And if that enthusiastic review got you interested in the novel, stick around because we're going to hear from the author. FRESH AIR's Dave Davies just recorded this interview with Colson Whitehead.
DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Colson Whitehead, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's good to have you. And the book is remarkable. I thought we would begin with a reading. I mean, your book is about some students at this thing that's called the Trevor Nickel Academy - thus "The Nickel Boys" is the book. But it's based on the story of the Dozier School in the panhandle of Florida, which is now closed and which where many abuses were discovered. This is a reading about a group of ex-students, right? Want to just set it up for us?
COLSON WHITEHEAD: Sure. It's about 2014, and the school's been closed for a couple of years. And people who'd been there in the '50s and '60s and '70s have started a survivors group, and they meet once a year and check out their old haunted place.
(Reading) The annual reunion, now in its fifth year, was strange and necessary. The boys were old men now, with wives and ex-wives and children they did or didn't talk to, with wary grandchildren who were brought around sometimes and those whom they were prevented from seeing. They had managed to scrape up a life after leaving Nickel or had never fit in at all with normal people - the last smokers of cigarette brands you never see, late to the self-help regimens, always on the verge of disappearing, dead in prison or decomposing in rooms they rented by the week, frozen to death in the woods after drinking turpentine.
The men met in the conference room of the Eleanor Garden Inn to catch up before caravanning out to Nickel for the solemn tour. Some years, you felt strong enough to head down that cement walkway, knowing that it led to one of your bad places. And some years, you didn't - avoidable or stared in the face, depending on your reserves that morning.
DAVIES: And that is Colson Whitehead reading from his new book "The Nickel Boys."
This school really changed people's lives, didn't it?
WHITEHEAD: Yeah. For some people, it was a very traumatic place. Not everyone who went through Dozier ended up being abused. You know, there were 600 students going through it each year, and that would be a tragedy on a catastrophic scale. But for its 110 years of existence, there were many stories of sexual abuse, physical abuse and even murder. They found some unmarked graves on the grounds, and that's when the sort of investigation of what actually happened at Dozier happened.
DAVIES: Your last book, "The Underground Railroad," which won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, was a look at slavery. What made you want to write about Dozier, about this school?
WHITEHEAD: I didn't want to. I felt sort of compelled to. You know, I came across a story of the school in 2014. They wanted to sell the property, the state of Florida did. And they started exhuming the official graveyard, and then they found a lot of unmarked graves. And some archaeology students started excavating the unmarked graves and trying to ID different students who'd been there. And the story stayed with me. You know, if there's one place like this, there are many places. And maybe it's a reform school, it's an orphanage.
Talking to some folks in Canada, they talked about residential schools there where indigenous kids were taken from their families and put in schools to learn about white culture, and the same kind of abuse happened. And it seemed, if the story hadn't been told, someone needed to tell it.
DAVIES: And how did you research the subject? Did you go down and visit Dozier?
WHITEHEAD: Well, I was on Twitter, where I often (laughter) am, and that's where I first came across the news report and then immediately started, you know, searching. And Ben Montgomery from the Tampa Bay Times had covered this story for years, so there was a lot of Florida coverage, not a lot of national coverage.
When I started writing, there were some memoirs. There's a survivors site called the White House Boys. And people who'd been there in the '50s and '60s had written down some of their stories of being in there. And then, you know, online, there are a lot of photo archives, and you can see the White House where the kids were beaten. You can see the dormitories and the administration buildings. And it all looks very nice. It's a very beautiful campus. And then once you hear about it, you know, your idea about it definitely changes.
DAVIES: But you didn't feel the need to go there.
WHITEHEAD: I intended to go. I like doing research. Whenever I travel for a book, I always feel like I'm earning, like, a real writer badge, or something. And I figured I'd go through - go down there after I got halfway through the book.
And then the deeper I got in and the more I read about Elwood and Turner, my two main characters, the more I sense a real - I had a sense of real physical dread and anger thinking about the place. And then I realized I was not going to go. And if I was going to go, it would be with some dynamite or a bulldozer. I think it's an evil place, and I'm not sure if I'll ever go there.
DAVIES: So how did you get the texture of the place to write about it?
WHITEHEAD: You know, I'm not a zombie hunter, or a runaway slave or an elevator inspector.
DAVIES: (Laughter) OK.
WHITEHEAD: Generally, I enjoy...
DAVIES: Things you have written about.
WHITEHEAD: Yes. Yeah.
WHITEHEAD: In other books. And I do enough research to feel grounded and really eager to start working, and that's when I know I have enough to keep going. And then like any writer, fiction writer, you know, I use my empathy and imagination, what I know about myself and other people, to make it real.
DAVIES: How did kids get into a school like Dozier? What sort of offenses or circumstances would cause them to be sent to this place?
WHITEHEAD: Sure. The idea behind the place was - you know, it was very enlightened. In the mid-19th century, reformers tried to think of how they could prevent juvenile offenders from being criminalized. You didn't want to lock them up with adult offenders. So a reform school where you get classes one day and learn a skill the next day, work in a farm, make something, build with their hands, you might be reformed.
Immediately, when the school started opening, there were stories of abuse. It opened in 1900. And in 1903, people were complaining about what was going on. The school was leasing students to local businesses. And the people who were there weren't all juvenile delinquents. They were orphans and wards of the state. If they had nowhere else to go, they'd put you there. And the charges for the so-called, you know, offenders were, you know, truancy, graffiti, vandalism, these sort of amorphous, you know, quality-of-life crimes.
DAVIES: Right. In a lot of cases, kids who just ran away, right, because they came from places where they were abused or unwanted.
WHITEHEAD: Well, they used to call it broken homes. Yeah. And so it was a warehouse for people who had nowhere else to go if you were under 18.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Colson Whitehead. His new novel is "The Nickel Boys." We will continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with novelist Colson Whitehead. His new book, "The Nickel Boys," is based on the true story of the Dozier School for Boys, a now-closed juvenile reform school in the Florida Panhandle, where former students have told stories of beatings and sexual abuse and where investigators have found dozens of unmarked graves.
So the teenager - well, the young man who is at the heart of our story, Elwood, isn't a kid who has come from an abusive home. Do you want to just talk about this character and why he's the kind of kid you wanted to let take us into the school?
WHITEHEAD: Sure. His name is Elwood Curtis. He's a straight-A student being raised by his grandparents. You know, has a job after school working in a tobacco store, wants to go to college. And he's grown up idolizing Martin Luther King and all the lights of the civil rights movement. He reads Life magazine every week and sees the updates on the boycotts and protests and sit-ins and sees himself as a part of this new generation that's going to change America, you know, bit by bit. And...
DAVIES: And we should just note he's in Tallahassee, Fla., in the Jim Crow South in the late '50s, early '60s, right?
WHITEHEAD: The book opens in the '50s. The main action is in '63. And so he's actually lived in an era where things actually are moving slowly, slowly forward. He hitches a ride with the wrong person - it's a stolen car - and gets sent to Nickel.
And for me, it's a weigh-in for my experience. I've been stopped by police for no reason. I've been handcuffed and interrogated. I think most young people of color have been stopped by police in this way. And he makes a wrong turn, and he's in the wrong place at the wrong time. And I think for many people, for many people of color, we can relate to suddenly having a life be able to change at any second.
DAVIES: So what happened when you were pulled over in handcuffs? What happened?
WHITEHEAD: I was, you know, a junior in high school, and I was with some friends. We were in a supermarket. And suddenly, there was a white cop saying, put your hands behind you. He put handcuffs on me; took me out to the street to his squad car, where there was a white woman in the back seat. She'd been mugged. And I guess I was the first black person, black teenager they came across. And luckily, she said that I was not the person who mugged her.
And I happened to be minding my own business, and like many young people of color, you know, if I had shifted the wrong way, reached for my wallet the wrong way, you know, who knows what could have happened? And so that informs my idea of being in the world and how any second things can go awry. And I know I'm not alone in understanding that's - that sort of menacing reality is always waiting there.
DAVIES: Right, right. Or you could be misidentified by somebody.
WHITEHEAD: Misidentified and, you know, if she hadn't been in the back seat, would I have spent the night in the Tombs, the local New York jail? And once I'm there, who knows whether my life goes this way or that way. So that - you know, that opportunity for tragedy is always there, I think, when it comes for people - between people of color and white law enforcement, and that's sort of our reality.
DAVIES: Elwood is in high school in the early '60s, when the civil rights movement is really rolling. And he has a teacher, Mr. Hill, who's interested in this and kind of committed to the battle for civil rights. There is a very compelling moment when you describe the first day of school, when the kids at this segregated school get their textbooks. You want to share that with us?
WHITEHEAD: Sure. The kids in the black school across town get their secondhand books from the white school, which is well-funded, as usually is the case. And the white students, knowing that their schoolbooks are going to the black part of town, write epithets - F you, the N-word - for their black neighbors to enjoy when they open up the books on the first day of school.
And Mr. Hill, Elwood's teacher, is the first person to say, you know, mark those out. They've taken the abuse for granted, you know, for a generation, year after year. And he - and Mr. Hill, who's a Freedom Rider, is the first person who says, you're decent people. Scratch that out, and let's start - let's make these books fresh.
DAVIES: So Elwood, he is committed to the principles of the civil rights movement and looks forward to participating. What's his attitude towards, you know, the life ahead of him, where he's got to deal with segregation and deal with a white power structure and limited opportunities? How does he conduct himself?
WHITEHEAD: You know, he's one of these very optimistic and idealistic sorts who thinks that if he wants to do it, he can do it. If you march, if you raise your voice, if you stand up, you can change the world. And if you devote your energies, you can fight back the vast machinery arrayed against you. And so he sees himself going to college. He sees himself joining the nattily-dressed people of SNCC and CORE marching on Washington, doing sit-ins, desegregating all the various venues.
And his one big moment before he goes off to Dozier happens in the late school year, when he protests the segregated movie theater in Tallahassee, which is a real protest. And they hand him a sign. They give him the slogans. And the white deputies and riffraff gaze upon them. The protesters stare, raise their fists. And it's this real sort of moment of the person he can actually be. He's a bit of a miracle. You know, he's an unlikely person.
And I think I was struck, when I was going back, you know, reading about Martin Luther King and the early civil rights struggle, how unlikely all those people were, you know, to believe that they could beat back 200 years of systematic oppression. And they did it, you know, sort of action by action. And so definitely while I was writing, you know, Elwood seemed like a very rare sort. But he was not alone. You know, he was part of a generation that really did change the country in an important way. Of course, we - you know, we slide back a bit. But they really did pull off miraculous things.
GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with Colson Whitehead. His new novel is called "The Nickel Boys." We'll hear more of the interview after a break, and Kevin Whitehead will review a new book about the Detroit jazz scene. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview Dave Davies recorded with writer Colson Whitehead. His new novel "The Nickel Boys," set in the early '60s, is based on the true story of the now closed Dozier Reform School for Boys in Florida, where many former students say they were beaten or sexually abused.
The central character of Whitehead's book is Elwood, a hardworking, college-bound African American high school student who believes in the promise of the civil rights movement. But his life changes when he ends up in reform school.
DAVIES: So Elwood, this optimistic young man, ends up in this reform school because he hitches a ride with a guy who happens to have stolen a car. He gets convicted of car theft, and he's in this place. How do his values mesh with his - the experience that confronts him?
WHITEHEAD: Well, you know, he's not there very long before he discovers that despite its beautiful exterior, things are quite off. He breaks up a fight between some big kids and a little kid. And his real initiation into the school is being taken to the White House.
At the real Dozier school, it was called the White House. It was a utility shed on campus that they started using for beatings after a short-lived reform. Corporal punishment was outlawed, and so they took the boys in real life to this place called the White House. And it was too great a detail to change and - the name, that is. And the kids on campus at Dozier called it the ice cream factory because you came out with different bruises of every color.
And so he breaks up this fight. And nobody is really particularly concerned about who started it, who was trying to break it up. The guilty and innocent are punished equally. And that's an early lesson at Nickel Academy.
DAVIES: You know, I thought we would listen to a piece of tape from an NPR report. This is from 2012, a reporter named Greg Allen. And it's based on his conversation with a guy who survived Dozier named Jerry Cooper and what happened when he had committed some offense and was taken to the White House for some discipline. Let's listen.
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GREG ALLEN: School staff got him out of bed at 2:00 a.m. one morning and took him to the White House, where he says they threw him on a bed, tied his feet and began beating him with a leather strap.
JERRY COOPER: The first blow lifted me a foot-and-a-half off that bed. And every time that strap would come down, you could hear the shuffle on the concrete because their shoes would slide. And, you know, you could hear the bam.
ALLEN: Cooper passed out, but a boy in the next room later told him he counted 135 lashes.
DAVIES: And that's from a report from NPR reporter Greg Allen about abuses at the Dozier School. The story has inspired the novel by our guest Colson Whitehead. It's called "The Nickel Boys." That really is the way it happened, isn't it?
WHITEHEAD: Yeah, the same details came up in a lot different accounts. To muffle the sounds of the beatings and the screams, they had this huge industrial fan. And so if you heard the fan go on on the other side of campus, you knew what was happening. And that came up a lot. The sound of the leather strap hitting the ceiling before it came down upon your back was very - it was repeated a lot. And I talked to one man who said that when you heard the belt hit the ceiling, you knew to tense up to, you know, sort of diminish the blow.
And so all - and all those tiny details have stayed with the people, you know, for decades and decades. And they can still hear it and still feel it and hear it and - in their very bones.
DAVIES: Right. And what would it do to your - to a student's back to get a hundred of those kinds of lashes delivered with that kind of force?
WHITEHEAD: Sure. I mean, it breaks it open. And then another thing that came up a lot was the kids being beaten across the legs so much that their fibers of their jeans are embedded in their skin, not to get - I'm sorry, I'm being grizzly - and then the doctor in the infirmary having to take tweezers and pluck them out. And, you know, more than one person relayed that detail. And - so you see it's a, you know, it's a bit of a factory, unfortunately.
DAVIES: So a lot of kids were beaten, and there are a lot of stories about this. Do we believe that kids were murdered?
WHITEHEAD: Well, there are kids in unmarked graves with blunt trauma to their skulls and gunshot pellets in their rib cages. And so how'd they get there? Teenagers buried in the ground with great evidence of violence, they didn't, you know, faint.
DAVIES: Right, or get the flu.
WHITEHEAD: Or get the flu.
DAVIES: We should note that no one has been criminally accused of killing anybody there. Of course, a lot of this happened decades ago, and so the evidence isn't easy to acquire, and some of the perpetrators are now deceased.
The kids did work and produce stuff. Was the school a source of profit for some local people?
WHITEHEAD: It was profitable for the state of Florida, you know, making those bricks and printing those pamphlets. In the early days - they stopped it in the mid part of the century, I believe - but they would lease out students to local businesses, local farmers. Some of the kids did end up dead under mysterious circumstances. And then eventually, you know, whatever - state investigators put a stop to it. But that was sort of, you know, convict leasing for grown-ups.
You know, it was a big business. Picked up - you're picked up for some minor infraction, vagrancy, and then the local deputy - talking about the South and black people being sold by white deputies to mines to farms and this sort of - I wouldn't say an indentured servitude because you could - your six months or year could be up, and no one would tell you. And you'd be sort of stuck. In the same way, there's no place for you to run. You know, once you're sort of in the system, you're embroiled, and there's no place to go.
DAVIES: There are quotes from Martin Luther King in the story because they come from this record that Elwood loved to play. And one of them you quote a couple of times, and it's striking. It's in which King describes the, you know, nonviolent resistance and the importance of loving your oppressors. And kind of an abridged version of the quote is he says, you know, throw us in jail, and we will love you. We will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. We will not only win freedom for ourselves, we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.
Tell me why that quote was something you wanted to use in this story.
WHITEHEAD: Sure. You know, one of the great things about research is that you make a decision, and then it starts paying off. And in terms of having Elwood be an acolyte of the civil rights movement is that I had to pick speeches and different episodes that would inspire him. And so I had to go back to Martin Luther King's speeches and figure out which ones would fit Elwood, which ones would fit this part of the book.
Once Elwood is tested at the Nickel Academy, he has to really live up to all these things he believed. He's heard Martin Luther King talk about loving the oppressor. He's talking about suffering and rising above it and loving in the face of impossible odds. And it's really once he gets to Nickel that Elwood has to think, can I do this?
I mean, it's sort of ridiculous, but it's sort of what we have to do. And, you know, his real sort of struggle the longer he spends at Nickel is having to finally put into concrete practice what he's been reading about. And perhaps he never imagined he'd have to prove himself so thoroughly as he does at Nickel.
DAVIES: In the last part of the book, we meet some of the characters later in life. And I don't want to say more than that about it because it would spoil it for readers, and they deserve to experience this. But I have to say the narrative structure here of how the course of their lives is revealed I think is pretty brilliant. And I wonder if you can, without giving away the story, just talk a little bit about how you decide to reveal the outcomes.
WHITEHEAD: Yeah. I mean, the majority of book takes place in '63 and '64, and we follow Elwood as he grows up and gets out of the Nickel Academy and moves to New York. And we see him in 19 - in the '70s, and we see him in the '80s, the early part of this century. And so we see what sort of makes him as a man.
And then we see the after effects of it. How do you come back from something as traumatic as being a Nickel? Who makes a whole life decades later? And who is perpetually victimized by their time there? Do you become addicted to drugs, an alcoholic? Can you find someone to love, make a family, keep a job? It's a few months out of his life, Elwood's young life, and then he has to spend the next couple of decades finding his way in the world.
And I think whether you were in a place like Dozier, if you had a family catastrophe early on, any sort of disaster you bounce back from. You reckon with it. It changes you, and then you - changes your world. And so that's where we find Elwood in this later chapter is a man, you know, trying to find himself after this very formative few months.
DAVIES: Colson Whitehead's new novel is "The Nickel Boys." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with novelist Colson Whitehead. His new book, "The Nickel Boys," is based on the true story of the Dozier School for Boys, a now-closed reform school in the Florida panhandle where there were accusations of serious beatings and sexual abuse over many decades and where investigators have found dozens of unmarked graves.
You know, the book is a lot about the struggle between optimism about social change and kind of a pragmatic acceptance of the world as it is. And we're in some pretty turbulent times in this country these days. How optimistic are you for positive change?
WHITEHEAD: I find I feel better if I don't think about it (laughter). I don't know. You know, this book comes out of, you know, feeling very desperate feeling that, you know, in the last 60 years, we have made some toddler steps towards equality. And then, you know, we fall back. And that's been my sort of experience my whole life. We sort of make an advance, and then we go back two spaces.
And, you know, my parents were basically Elwood's generation, and I can't imagine my grandparents or my parents raising their kids in a racist country and then seeing what has happened in last 50 years. We had a black president. That's crazy. And then I think they'd be not surprised about swastikas being painted on synagogues and incarceration camps full of brown people at the border.
So I guess my new line on hope is that I don't see a law changing in my lifetime, I think. Hopefully my kids, you know, 50 years from now will have a different idea the same way that I have a different idea than my parents and grandparents. But right now, I think we're pretty stuck, and I don't see things getting a lot better before they get worse.
DAVIES: How old are your kids?
WHITEHEAD: Five and 14.
DAVIES: OK. So the older one especially is in a position to be aware of a lot of things.
WHITEHEAD: And she's, like, super woke, you know? She's, like, policing me on my super PC-ness, which is, you know, sort of startling. And then the younger one, you know, I hope to start training early. You know, he's into cops and robbers, and so we raise an eyebrow and he'll say, like - you know, a police car will speed by, and he'll say, you know, there's a cop going to stop a robber. And I'll have to step in and say or an innocent person driving a car that the cop thinks is too fancy for him in the wrong neighborhood. That's the sort of early tutelage you get in the Whitehead household.
DAVIES: Well, while you were writing this book, I'm wondering, you know, what was happening in the country on race relations? I mean, a lot's happened in the last few years. I'm wondering, what events might have informed your thinking as you were writing this?
WHITEHEAD: What made that first news report about Dozier indelible was the fact that it was the summer of 2014, and that was the summer Michael Brown was shot by a white policeman in Ferguson, Mo., Eric Garner put in a chokehold by white policeman in Staten Island. And it's been a feature of my life that, you know, we have these high-profile police brutality incidents, and we talk about police brutality for a few months and then stop until the next time that comes along.
So that summer was so - you know, the fact that no one's ever held accountable, no one ever goes to jail, no one ever takes any responsibility made me feel very raw, and I think that allowed the story of Dozier to sort of settle in there - settle in me. It was another example of just people who are powerless, people who have no defenses being abused by an institution. And the guilty go free, and the innocent suffer.
DAVIES: This is your ninth book. And your last one, "The Underground Railroad," won a National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, selected by Oprah Winfrey, which I'm sure boosted sales a lot and gave it a much bigger profile. As you finished and published this book, did it feel like a completely different experience because of where your career is?
WHITEHEAD: Not so much because of the success of "The Underground Railroad." You know, it seemed like a once in a lifetime kind of convergence of me doing what I set out to do and other people getting it. And it was quite lovely. But you know, nine books in - you know, I've had books that, let's say, people didn't appreciate or underappreciated and books that people sort of got. And then whether it goes well or crappily last time, you always have to start with a blank page. And you know, I switch genres a lot, and I'm always trying to figure out different ways of telling stories. And so that challenge is always there.
I'm writing a short, realistic book about something that actually happened. This book is a - it's fantastic. This book is a nonfiction book about poker. And so I was in a good mood for a year. And then you get back to work, and it's as crappy as it ever was.
DAVIES: (Laughter) Is it true you had to sign 15,000 copies of this one?
WHITEHEAD: They asked me to, and I said yes (laughter) 'cause I couldn't say no. But the - you know, this - a lot of independent bookstores had asked for them, and they've been so supportive over 20 years that, you know, how could I say no?
And so I went to the, you know, big Random House warehouse outside Baltimore and, for three days, signed 15,000 copies of "The Nickel Boys." And it was on my arm that hurt. It was my neck. I got a weird cramp that I still have, like, a month later. And a massage has been suggested, but I haven't done it yet.
DAVIES: Your last book, "The Underground Railroad," is being produced as a TV series on Amazon. Do you have any role in that?
WHITEHEAD: No. You know, I had a few, you know, talks with Barry Jenkins, the director. But my attitude is, I wrote it once; I wouldn't want to write it again. And then I have other things I want to work on, stuff - you know, like new books like "Nickel Boys." So it was - you know, it's really cool. They're starting to shoot in August - next month. It'll be, like, 10 episodes. And I - you know, I can't wait to see what they do with it.
DAVIES: Are you nervous about seeing your work adapted like that?
WHITEHEAD: Well, I think in general, adaptations are terrible, so having someone like Barry Jenkins makes me feel very comfortable and excited. And you know, it's one thing to write, you know, different scenes on the page, another thing to put them on-screen. And so we've talked about some of his solutions for making it dynamic for the screen, and they're very smart. And it's stuff I could never come up with. You know, it's a totally different medium. And so I'm pretty excited.
DAVIES: So you don't want - you're not - be drawn into writing screenplays next.
WHITEHEAD: You know, periodically, I'm like, I don't want to teach this semester. Can I write, like, a blockbuster screenplay? Then I'll get 20 pages in. I'm like, oh, this sucks; I'd rather write a novel. You know, it's hard work. I could do some things. Like, I can't write screenplays, apparently. So I'll stay in my lane is my motto.
DAVIES: OK. All right. Well, congratulations on the book. Colson Whitehead, it's been great to have you back. Thanks so much.
WHITEHEAD: Thank you. See you next time.
GROSS: Colson Whitehead spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies. His new novel is called "The Nickel Boys." Whitehead won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for his previous novel "The Underground Railroad," which is being adapted into an Amazon TV series.
After we take a short break, our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will review a book about the Detroit jazz scene. This is FRESH AIR.
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