The thing about The Nickel Boys that the reader cannot be allowed to forget is that while this book is technically a work of fiction, the school it is based on was absolutely real. Forensic archaeologists are still unearthing unmarked graves on the grounds of the former Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, a segregated reform school in Florida. Colson Whitehead fictionalizes true stories and that makes them no easier to take.
This book centers on the Nickel Academy, the unfortunate reform school to which young Elwood Curtis is sent for the high crime of existing while black. The narrative is deliberately disjointed – telling us Elwood’s story before, during, and after Nickel all out of order – and very efficient. This is not a long book, but it packs a heck of a punch. It’s sad, horrifying, and infuriating and all in less than 300 pages.
The crazy thing is, on reflection, it started to feel a little … flat? Cruel, but lacking in depth. It was like there wasn’t any motivation behind “evil because we can be” which can be fine and true but felt hollow in places. Part of me wishes Whitehead hadn’t fictionalized this story, but had instead told one of the real stories of one of the real boys who suffered at Dozier. Nothing about The Nickel Boys felt exploitative, which I really appreciated (we know my feelings on true crime) but it also didn’t feel like an exploration of anything new. Still, it was a very good book and I do recommend it.