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“The Boys Who Woke Up Early”: a reminder of America’s complicated past and present

Book cover of The Boys Who Woke up Early by A.D. Hopkins

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When I read books, sometimes I know exactly what I want to highlight in my review and other times, ideas and themes from the novel need time to grow and develop in my mind like an oyster and its pearl. The latter was very true for my reading of A.D. Hopkins The Boys Who Woke Up Early set in western Virginia (Early County) in the 1960s. It follows the cultural and social awakening of two teenage boys, Jack Newcomb and Thomas Jackson Shelor, who in turn help start an awakening that ends in cataclysmic proportions for the county itself.

Thomas, referred to throughout the novel as Stony (from Stonewall Jackson), is on juvenile probation. He gets into fights and manages to attract trouble even when he is trying to stay out of it. His somewhat unlikely friend Jack Newcomb has been the new kid a thousand times over with his parents moving from town to town for new development projects. The two of them decide to start a private detective agency after Rich Conway, the local prosecutor, has had a string of thefts.

The story of The Boys Who Woke Up Early is in many ways a timeless American narrative of small town life, mischief, and growing up. The universality does not just stop there. Early County has a strong Klu Klux Klan (KKK) membership. The segregated and rather large Black community of the county means that the KKK are always on edge and what I would describe as itching and willing for a confrontation.

This is written as historical fiction that looks back on the racially charged 1960s and addresses how people like Jack and Stony overcome some of their racial prejudices. Yet, it also reflects the unrest we see in the United States today. With recent events involving indigenous activists and young white men ‘Make America Great Again’ (MAGA) hats taunting and yelling at the indigenous activists, I can say without a doubt that America needs a reawakening. Novels like Hopkins’ can give us the illusion that poor race relations, discrimination, and even the KKK and other hate groups are a thing of the past. However, this is a regular occurrence for non-whites in the U.S. and to assume that this stuff could only happen in the 1960s-1970s is a naive outlook.

Hopkins weaves a timeless narrative that should speak to contemporary America. The author was a journalist and reporter and his details of police, politics, and civilian relations is described well and with a touch of what I imagine is insider knowledge. What I appreciate most about the novel is the racial awareness and awakening that the Jack and Stony undertake throughout the novel. In the beginning they are passive bystanders to racial inequality. It is something they never questioned or even really thought about. This is true of most people even today. Unless we are directly affected by something it can be hard for us to see how it affects others. And this blindness goes beyond race relations. The boys learn through meeting African Americans, talking with white alleys, and learning inside details of the bigger race relations of the county that what they have assumed as ‘fact’ might actually be very false. Their evolution is not over night and they don’t wake up and suddenly become ‘woke’. The process is an accumulation of small realisations that result in a paradigm shift for the boys.

I hope if people read Hopkins novel they ask themselves how and if they question the current social, political, and cultural climate of their country. I hope that the characters Stony and Jack lead by example and maybe even change a few reader’s lives.

Do you enjoy contemporary historical fiction? Will you be picking up a copy of Hopkins’ novel? As always, share the reading love.

NOTE: This novel was was accessed through Netgalley and Imbrifex Books for review purposes.

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