My first experience with Colson Whitehead was almost two years ago when I read The Underground Railroad and was very impressed. So when I saw a new book by Whitehead, The Nickel Boys (2019), I knew I was going to read it. Once again I had help from the “Lucky Day” shelf at my library.
Whitehead tells the fictional story of The Nickel Academy, based on a real reform school in Florida: the Dozier School that was open from 1900 until 2011. The story follows a teenage boy named Curtis Elwood during the Civil Rights era of the 1960’s. He is inspired by the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his promises of equality. Elwood would sit in the local hotel kitchen while his grandmother cleaned rooms. He’d steal glances towards the dining room when the door opened, wondering when Black people would be allowed to eat in the dining room.
As he grew up, Elwood proved himself to be optimistic, idealistic, dedicated, and hard working. Although his parents weren’t in the picture anymore, he was lovingly raised by his grandmother. He worked hard at school as well as at his part-time job after school. He was willing to stand up for what he believed no matter the consequences.
Obviously, something happens, and Elwood ends up at the Nickel Academy where his attributes are not appreciated. At first, Elwood thinks that it might not be too bad, but he quickly changes his mind. Elwood meets Jack Turner at the school. Turner is a cynical survivor, so he’s much better at using the system for his own good.
Whitehead somehow manages to keep The Nickel Boys both unsentimental and horrifying at the same time. It’s not exactly clear how much of the story is based on fact, but this newspaper article hits on many details that are also in the book. The Nickel Boys is well written and sheds more light on the travesty’s of justice inflicted on children for over one hundred years. It’s powerful and worth reading.
Whitehead details some infuriating aspects of this school. Much of the food was sold to local restaurants and stores, leaving the kids hungry. Sometimes “runaways” were actually troublesome kids who were taken “out back” and murdered. There were rings embedded in trees for tying them up. One boy was being sexually abused by a staff member. He ran away in desperation. When they caught him, they took him out back and he was never seen again. Another boy was fighting in the annual school boxing tournament and did not throw the fight as he was instructed. He was killed later that night. In addition, the white house was a place children were brought for punishment and beaten. I was a little confused about how these beatings worked because somehow a fan was used, but it was undeniably brutal.
The one thing about this book, and I’m not sure how bothered I am by it, was that I felt a little manipulated. This was primarily with how the book was set up. The second half of the book jumps back and forth between present-day Elwood and Elwood back at school. It was reassuring because I thought, well, no matter what happens, at least I know he survives.
And then I got to the end of the book. Elwood, who believes so strongly in justice, writes a letter and sneaks it to some inspectors about all of the abuses going on at the school. The tragedy is that he believes this will make a difference. Instead he is thrown into solitary. Turner goes against his own survival instincts and breaks Elwood out of solitary when he hears that the staff is planning on taking him “out back.” They run away together. When Elwood is shot as they run away across a field, Turner survives but takes Elwood’s name. After many semi-comforting chapters that Elwood had survived, I learn that all those chapters had actually been from Turner’s point of view. Forty years later, when Turner goes back to the school as the state is digging up graves, he eats at the local hotel that Elwood’s grandmother worked at so long ago. On the one hand, this made for a more memorable, emotional punch. On the other hand, I felt a little tricked. I don’t think I’m going to forget about this book.
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