The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
Colson Whitehead brilliantly dramatizes another strand of American history through the story of two boys sentenced to a hellish reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida.
As the Civil Rights movement begins to reach the black enclave of Frenchtown in segregated Tallahassee, Elwood Curtis takes the words of Dr. Martin Luther King to heart: He is “as good as anyone.” Abandoned by his parents, but kept on the straight and narrow by his grandmother, Elwood is about to enroll in the local black college. But for a black boy in the Jim Crow South in the early 1960s, one innocent mistake is enough to destroy the future. Elwood is sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called The Nickel Academy, whose mission statement says it provides “physical, intellectual and moral training” so the delinquent boys in their charge can become “honorable and honest men.”
In reality, The Nickel Academy is a grotesque chamber of horrors, where the sadistic staff beats and sexually abuses the students, corrupt officials and locals steal food and supplies, and any boy who resists is likely to disappear “out back.” Stunned to find himself in such a vicious environment, Elwood tries to hold on to Dr. King’s ringing assertion “Throw us in jail and we will still love you.” His friend Turner thinks Elwood is worse than naive, that the world is crooked and the only way to survive is to scheme and avoid trouble.
The tension between Elwood’s ideals and Turner’s skepticism leads to a decision whose repercussions will echo down the decades. Formed in the crucible of the evils Jim Crow wrought, the boys’ fates will be determined by what they endured at The Nickel Academy.
Based on the real story of a reform school in Florida that operated for one hundred and eleven years and warped the lives of thousands of children, The Nickel Boys is a devastating, driven narrative.
Even in death the boys were trouble.
I do not even know how to adequately put in to words how The Nickel Boys made me feel. My heart felt heavy from the very first line to long after I finished the last page. This is one of those books that will stick with you and that you can not shake for a long time afterward. I fully believe that was Colson Whitehead’s intention and it is something he does so well. His debut novel, The Underground Railroad, was one of the best books I read last year, and I can pretty much guarantee you that you will see The Nickel Boys on my favourites list at the end of this year.
What I appreciate most about Colson Whitehead is that he does not shy away from discussing difficult topics and exposing hard truths about America’s past. I have since read many interviews of Whitehead discussing The Nickel Boys. I highly recommend that you do the same- it adds to the reading experience.
I often say this about shorter books but it is especially true for The Nickel Boys- it is incredible what Whitehead was able to accomplish in 224 pages. Every single word has a purpose and evokes an emotion. It is evident that this is a topic that he took seriously and wanted to do justice- and he does!
Somehow this review has become more about Colson Whitehead than the book itself but they are so intertwined in my mind. His passion comes through on the page and is part of what makes his novels so spectacular.
YES! It sounds like a cliche, but The Nickel Boys is an important read- maybe the most important I have read so far this year. Just be prepared to be punched in the gut!
Thank you to Penguin Canada for sending me a finished copy in for an honest review.