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Professor Jerry Ward on Nikky Finney’s Heartwood

[By Prof. Jerry Ward]

When an excellent writer wins a prize, many readers rush to buy the book that won the prize. On the other hand, readers who are immunized against the herd instinct may take another option. They may take an older work by the prize winner off their bookshelves and read something they’d always meant to read but had not yet got around to reading.

Nikky Finney recently won the 2011 National Book Award in Poetry for Head Off & Split. In 1997, Finney published Heartwood, a collection of four interrelated stories. The book is part of the Kentucky Humanities Council’s New Books for New Readers project. Books in that series were published because “Kentucky’s adult literacy students want books that recognize their intelligence and experience while meeting their need for simplicity in writing” ( iv). Unlike America’s jaded intelligentsia, readers who find honest joy in learning do not fear simplicity. Or, as Finney aptly noted, “fiction should reflect life in all its majesty and madness” (v).

One of the finest stories in Heartwood is “The Church of the Holy Whiteness.” Writing a story that judiciously represents the soul of white folk is no easy task. A writer has to tear off several thousand years of majestic madness to expose its heartwood. Finney tore off the bark or majestic madness with laudable expertise; she wrote a story that demonstrates how sublime poetic justice can be. I glow with the pleasure and insight “The Church of the Holy Whiteness” delivers.

When an excellent writer wins a prize, an old reader’s going back into the past of an old book can be most rewarding. It is there one discovers the writer’s hidden gold. The reading is a tribute to the writer’s having been what John Oliver Killens called a long-distance runner.