Review: The Nickel Boys
I knew I would read Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys the moment it popped up on my radar. Last year, I listened to the audiobook of his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Underground Railroad while driving across the country.
As I drove through the south I listened to his descriptions of the marshy landscape as it passed outside my window. The horrors and the beauty of the novel seemed to exist in the same space I was driving through but in another time and place.
This year, while I was visiting family in Florida I began reading The Nickel Boys. The novel takes place in the Florida panhandle and I found myself transported into that world.
As the Civil Rights movement begins to take over the Jim Crow South we meet our protagonist, Elwood Curtis. Elwood is a bright kid with an even brighter future. His only vinyl record, a recording of Martin Luther King Jr. inspires him to join his peers in protest. Unlike some of the other kids in his neighborhood, he’s a straight-A student with a desire to learn as much as possible.
His grandmother Harriet is partially the reason for his studiousness. She chooses who he hangs out with and keeps a strict rule over his life. When one of his teachers offers him the chance to take college courses while still in high school he jumps at it and Harriet of course obliges.
Unfortunately, he never makes it to his first college class. On the way to his first day of class, he hitchhikes. Unbeknownst to Elwood, he ends up getting into a stolen car. He and the driver get pulled over and arrested.
He’s sent to a reform school, Nickel Academy, rife with abuse. Most of his fellow students are wards of the state, orphans, runaways, kids from abusive homes, and non-violent offenders.
The story begins in modern-day when forensic archeology students discover unmarked graves in the school’s cemetery. The beginning and the end of the book show concurrent timelines with the past and present. This juxtaposition amplifies the disturbing truth that the Nickel boys’ lives would be very different had they never stepped foot onto that campus.
A quote from the book reads:
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.
The split timeline forces the reader to ruminate on the hard truths of Elwood’s life. If Elwood were white he probably would not have been sent to Nickel. He is presumed guilty by the white cop who arrests him and by the court, despite being unaffiliated with the driver of the stolen car.
Part of the beauty of this book is the dialogue it has with the system of white supremacy in the United States. It discusses redlining, the racism of the GI Bill, white flight, and Civil Rights from an incredibly humanistic and relatable perspective.
I was already aware of these systemic racist laws and the social and cultural ramifications of them, however, Whitehead brings them from the abstract to reality seamlessly.
He makes us confront our privilege and the white privilege so many wield unquestionably in order to uphold the status quo. The use of Elwood’s grandmother, Harriet, made me reflect on intergenerational trauma and how it continues to play out today. It is noted in the book that Harriet’s father had to “pay” when he didn’t step out of the way of a white woman on a sidewalk, her husband had to “pay” for stepping out, and her son and his wife left Harriet and Elwood. It seems that Elwood too had to pay.
The novel questions Justice in every sense of the word. There is the state’s version of Justice. Then there is the Justice served in the Nickel Academy’s torture building known to the boys as the White House. There is also Elwood’s idea of Justice. Elwood’s Justice came from his study of Martin Luther King Jr.’s conceptualization of Justice. The book is so centrally themed around the idea of Justice and yet not one of these versions line up or mean the same thing. In fact, all of their definitions are at odds, complete contradictions of one another.
During my reading of this book, I was reminded of James Baldwin. As with much of Baldwin’s work, Whitehead’s novel is a window into the past that amplifies the history that is left out of the classroom. Horrifying, but written with emotion so tangible it jumps off the page.
It’s a wonderful novel because Whitehead uses this horrendous story to say so much. Each sentence is beautifully crafted, even when the story on the page filled me with disgust and dread. Whitehead’s prose is so vivid and his writing so nuanced I couldn’t help but wish I could read more and more. The story left me sobbing uncontrollably, not only for the characters in the story but on a larger scale. I was crying for injustice and oppression of so many in the United States.
When I returned home to California I raved to my partner about the novel. As I described the book he instantly remembered a story he had heard about a Florida reform school with a dark past. I googled it and found out that Whitehead’s book is in fact based on the now-defunct Arthur G. Dozier School for boys in Florida.
I wish I could say I was surprised about the abuses faced by such a vulnerable part of the population, but, as the current political climate shows us this is an ever-present phenomenon. This novel serves as an incredible reminder of the horrors this country was built on and continues to sustain today.
For a wonderful follow-up watch as Roxane Gay discusses the book with Debbie Millman, Mira Jacob, and Open Mike Eagle.