This is a post in my 50 Nifty series, in which I’m reading through 50 books that embody each of the 50 United States. Find out why I’m doing this and which books I’m reading when (so you can read along) by checking out my first 50Nifty post, or else browse all 50Nifty posts by clicking here!
Native Son, Richard Wright
Wright’s main character in Native Son is a complicated protagonist who alternately attracts the reader’s compassion and horror throughout the novel. It is a fascinating book about the struggles of Bigger Thomas, a black man who is caught up in the societal, racial, and political tensions of 1930s Chicago. Thomas’s accidental crime has him running from the law and lost in the maze of the city in the depths of winter, feeling devoid of volition in an environment that may or may not have been specifically created to entrap him. Wright does a wonderful job of writing in a way that introduces questions to the reader but does not hand over easy answers, instead allowing the reader to wrestle with the provocative text.
I had the incredible opportunity to see Nambi E. Kelley’s adaptation of the novel performed on stage at the Court Theatre in Chicago last fall, and it was a memorable afternoon. Sitting in the theatre, I felt the same overall despair at the disturbing reality depicted on the stage that I did when I’d first read the book several years earlier. It is not an easy or a happy story, but one that needs to be told and retold, as the issues and themes at its center are still a problem in the very same city about which it was written (as well as throughout the country).
My copy from the library for the 50Nifty project included Wright’s essay “How ‘Bigger’ was Born,” which was an interesting look into the composite character. Wright describes several “Biggers” he encountered growing up in the South, but also writes that after moving to Chicago, “I made the discovery that Bigger Thomas was not black all the time; he was white, too, and there were literally millions of him, everywhere . . . I became conscious, at first dimly, and then later on with increasing clarity and conviction, of a vast, muddied pool of human life in America.” This muddied pool is what Wright captures in Native Son.
In part because Wright was (while not a native son) a transplanted citizen of Chicago, in part because Chicago is Bigger’s home and the setting for the book, and in part because so much of the story deals with the particular geography (both societal and structural) of the city, this book is a great choice for the 50Nifty list. A couple other contenders I could think of off the top of my head are Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and (more recently) Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City, which are also both primarily about Chicago. Other alternatives? Perhaps dealing with the surplus of countryside in the state?