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What are you reading, Mr. Ohler?

Uwe Ohler explores how gene regulation enables the development of complex organisms. Besides bioinformatics, he sings in a choir - and loves to read. For you, he has chosen a novel about two black boys in Florida: a story about injustice and racism based on an authentic case.

One of my latest reads is Colson Whitehead’s “The Nickel Boys”. Colson Whitehead is probably best known for “The Underground Railroad”, his novel prior to The Nickel Boys, which was recently made into a TV series by Barry Jenkins, of Moonlight fame. (Yes, this is a book review but I cannot resist a shout out to an absolutely fantastic movie, when it happens to be among the best in the last decade.) With these two books, Whitehead succeeded in winning the Pulitzer Prize twice in a row. And while this may sound and smell of complicated literature and literary establishment, this is not true at all and more than well-deserved. His prose is stark and simple, and this contributes to the immediacy of the stories. Both of these books grab you and do not let you go, they make you feel for the characters and live with what they experience. It is one of these reading experiences that draw you in and make you angry for all that happens — and it is a good anger, a righteous anger. It has begun to put The Underground Railroad on required reading lists in US schools and colleges, and it has every reason to be on there.

But even though The Underground Railroad is larger in scope and more fantastic in its setting, let me talk a bit more about The Nickel Boys, as it impressed me even more if that’s possible.

The novel tells the story of African American teenagers that are sent into a reeducation boarding school of sorts because of a minor run-in with the law. For one of the main characters, it’s just a matter of getting picked up by the wrong car when he catches a ride. And how he manages to adapt to the gruesome system, which often pits the boys against one another, and still not lose hope and maintain dignity, is heart breaking.

As with the Underground Railroad, the background of the Nickel Boys is unfortunately set in reality. But unlike the earlier book, it stays in reality and close to its inspiration: A few years ago, local historians found a fairly sizable cemetery in a so-called reform school in Florida, and in it graves of many children that died after long abuse. The book is not very long, a mere 220 pages, so do yourself a favor and read it before the movie comes out - an adaptation is already under way. Its plot twists will sweep the rug from under your feet (I will not say more) and it will haunt you, but I think you will be grateful that you read it.

"The Nickel Boys" Original version published by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.


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