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A Chicago book that holds special meaning to me

Lori Rader-Day

Native Son is noir as hell. Maybe that’s my prejudice as a crime writer, to find overlap between the genre that gets called, with derision, “airport reading” and the capital-L literary novels. But Richard Wright’s Native Son is real-deal noir: a dark story that kneecaps the reader with an unexpected crime, takes them deeply into the mind of a killer on the run, and then ends with—it’s Chinatown, Jake. Bigger Thomas, a young black man, lives on Chicago’s South Side in the 1930s, trapped in poverty and boxed in by the city’s racial and cultural divisions. When Bigger takes on a chauffeur job for a wealthy white family, the new start should be his chance to take care of his own. His new employers, however, confuse him and blur lines he would rather maintain. He makes an error that costs a young, white life. The reader will see Bigger’s point, might even root for his escape. As with the best crime stories, Native Son grapples with more than the crime. Some sources say Wright based Bigger’s actions on a true crime—but it’s a bigger story than that, and in telling it, Wright doesn’t let Chicago or American society come away clean.

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