As always, I am behind on my reviews but that means that I get to pick which book I would review for my 52nd of the year (I had six choices). I chose Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys for a few reasons. First, it was probably the best of the un-reviewed books on my list, though competition was fierce. Still unwritten are Wanderers by Chuck Wendig, How Long ’til Black Future Month? by N.K. Jemisin, and The Night Masquerade (Binti, #3) by Nnedi Okorafor, all of which I really liked. That said, The Nickel Boys has stuck with me more after reading it so I went with it.
The Nickel Boys is historical fiction that tells the story of a young, black boy growing up in Tallahassee, FL. I went to Florida State University which is in Tallahassee so I knew most of the roads and places. One of the most interesting things to me was learning the Frenchtown was the actual name of the neighborhood in which our protagonist, Elwood lives. Frenchtown is a primarily black neighborhood in Tallahassee and, I learned, the oldest such neighborhood in the state of Florida. I also learned that it is the real name of the neighborhood. I always assumed it was a slur when I was a student. I suppose it was the way in which people described the area. Or perhaps it was the people who used the term. It always seemed to me that the word left a bad taste in their mouths.
Today I’m embarrassed by how wrong I was. Not because of the mistake but because I assumed people were using a slur and I did absolutely nothing. I purported myself in a manner that made others feel comfortable using language I thought was inappropriate around me. The feeling is also how reading The Nickel Boys made me feel. Hopeless and futile. While I did not imprison these young men and I feel as though I am responsible. I want to believe that this is a testament to Whitehead and not an indictment of myself. The young men in The Nickel Boys represent, to me, the unintentional neglect that exists within every indecision, every failure to do what I know is right.
It reads like it is the best work of non-fiction I have ever read but it isn’t. It makes you feel like you should do something while at the same time it is a work of fiction. It will infuriate you, make you sick, evoke tears, and make you laugh. You will feel something when you read The Nickel Boys and you probably won’t like it. I think that’s a good thing.