The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
Published by Doubleday Books
Publication date: July 16, 2019
Genres: Book Clubs, Fiction, Historical, Literary
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Thanks to his strict grandmother, Elwood Curtis is the kind of young man anyone would be proud of. He’s smart, honest, and dependable. He is a devoted follower of Martin Luther King, listening to a record of his speeches until he knows them by heart. After he graduates from high school he has the chance to take free classes at a nearby technical college. It’s on the trip to school that he makes a mistake. An innocent mistake. Which wouldn’t matter, except this is Florida in the 1960s and Elwood is black. In short order he finds himself sentenced to the Nickel Academy, a segregated school with 600 students near Tallahassee. He becomes one of The Nickel Boys, in Colson Whitehead’s new novel.
Initially, Elwood is on his guard, but as someone who’s never been afraid of hard work and following the rules he believes he’ll do his time, get out, and get back to school. He soon finds out that all he knows of rules and getting ahead has no meaning. There are four levels at Nickel and only once you ascend to the highest one do you ‘graduate’. How you get there is based solely on an arbitrary system of merits and demerits. All of what made Elwood stand out as a positive now makes him stand out as a target. His beliefs and ideals work against him and he is soon subjected to the horrors of Nickel’s discipline.
Elwood’s only solace is another boy, Turner, who is his opposite—doing anything to survive and unbothered by scruples. The two work together delivering food and school supplies supposed to be for the boys to local businesses, who buy them for cut-rate prices. The administration pockets the money. This is just one of the many unpleasant truths these boys live, but what stands out most, is the matter-of-fact nature with which Whitehead recounts the hellscape that was the Nickel Academy. There are no pyrotechnics in the novel, no gruesomely detailed scenes of torture. What there is is the systemic violence and Jim Crow laws that made a school like the academy possible—relayed with resignation by the victims and an entitled malevolence by the perpetrators.
I’ve read a lot of amazing, short fiction. Novels like Enon, Riots I Have Known, and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas mesmerized me with the stories they told in under 250 pages. I also read Whitehead’s last novel The Underground Railroad so know how easily he can immerse a reader. What struck me was that he achieved both in The Nickel Boys. For as short as it is, the novel covers decades in the lives of two young men and does so in a way that feels complete. This is not easy reading, especially because the novel is based on the very real Dozier school in Florida, but it is a story that needed telling and someone like Whitehead to tell it.
That’s what the school did to a boy. It didn’t stop when you got out. Bend you all kind of ways until you were unfit for straight life, good and twisted by the time you left.