This was a sad, hard book to read, full of boys not much older than my own being abused and tortured in the name of reform. It becomes even sadder when you realize Whitehead based it all on a real “school”.
“We must believe in our souls that we are somebody, that we are significant, that we are worthful, and we must walk the streets of life every day with this sense of dignity and this sense of somebody-ness.”
Elwood Curtis, who counts Dr. Martin Luther King as one of his heroes, is a good kid who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time and gets sent to a reform school called the Nickel Academy. Here, he quickly learns that life (which has been tough on him already) can be absolutely dangerous and terrifying. Boys are kept in the school, forced to do manual labor, and abused and mistreated for any perceived infraction. After trying to help the victim of a bully, Elwood is labelled as a troublemaker, and things get even worse for him. The majority of the book is just watching him trying to survive.
“If everyone looked the other way, then everybody was in on it. If he looked the other way, he was as implicated as the rest. That’s how he saw it, how he’d always seen things.”
The book has a twist at the end that I didn’t see coming. I enjoy Whitehead’s style of writing, which kept me hanging on every word. I think I finished this book in just a couple of sittings. Whitehead makes Elwood easy to root for — he’s a good kid with a good heart and a formerly bright future. But even the troubled kids — the violent ones, the thieves — deserve our compassion. No child — or adult — could possibly deserve what these kids went through. It certainly didn’t reform anyone.