The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
Elwood Curtis has taken the words of Dr Martin Luther King to heart: he is as good as anyone. Abandoned by his parents, brought up by his loving, strict and clearsighted grandmother, Elwood is about to enroll in the local black college. But given the time and the place, one innocent mistake is enough to destroy his future, and so Elwood arrives at The Nickel Academy, which claims to provide ‘physical, intellectual and moral training’ which will equip its inmates to become ‘honorable and honest men’.
In reality, the Nickel Academy is a chamber of horrors, where physical, emotional and sexual abuse is rife, where corrupt officials and tradesmen do a brisk trade in supplies intended for the school, and where any boy who resists is likely to disappear ‘out back’.
Stunned to find himself in this vicious environment, Elwood tries to hold on to Dr King’s ringing assertion, ‘Throw us in jail, and we will still love you.’ But Elwood’s fellow inmate and new friend Turner thinks Elwood is naive and worse; the world is crooked, and the only way to survive is to emulate the cruelty and cynicism of their oppressors.
The tension between Elwood’s idealism and Turner’s skepticism leads to a decision which will have decades-long repercussions.
The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
Lily has grown up believing she accidentally killed her mother when she was four. She not only has her own memory of holding the gun, but her father’s account of the event. Now fourteen, she yearns for her mother, and for forgiveness.
Living on a peach farm in South Carolina with her father, she has only one friend: Rosaleen, a black servant whose sharp exterior hides a tender heart. South Carolina in the sixties is a place where segregation is still considered a cause worth fighting for. When racial tension explodes one summer afternoon, and Rosaleen is arrested and beaten, Lily is compelled to act.
Fugitives from justice and from Lily’s harsh and unyielding father, they follow a trail left by the woman who died ten years before. Finding sanctuary in the home of three beekeeping sisters, Lily starts a journey as much about her understanding of the world, as about the mystery surrounding her mother.
The Mercy Seat by Elizabeth H. Winthrop
As another baking hot day dawns over Louisiana in 1943, a young black man wakes in a town jail to the final hours of his life: at midnight, eighteen-year-old Willie Jones will be executed by electric chair for raping a white girl – a crime some believe he did not commit. In a tale taut with mounting tension, the day unfolds hour by hour from nine points of view: Willie himself, knowing what really happened and grappling with what it means to die; his father, desperately trying to reach home with a tombstone for his son before it’s too late to see him one last time; the lawyer, haunted by being forced to seek the death penalty against his convictions, his wife, who believes Willie to be innocent, and their 12-year-old son, determined to get as close as possible to the action regardless of the dangers; the priest assigned to Willie in jail; the prisoner entrusted with driving the executioner and his travelling electric chair to the place of execution; and the mother whose only son is fighting in the Far East, bent on befriending her black neighbours. In this exceptionally powerful novel, Elizabeth Winthrop explores matters of justice, racism and the death penalty in a fresh, subtle and profoundly affecting way.