Kicking off my CBR12 Bingo with The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead for the RED book cover square. A beautifully written novel about a segregated Florida reform school during the Jim Crow era. All the boys never left The Nickel Academy the same as when they arrived.
The novel flashes between the present and the past through Elwood’s eyes. Each chapter gives you a lyrical moment in time. We learn about the place in pieces, flashing forward to Elwood as an adult. As soon as the author introduced Elwood, I was ready to protect him with my life. A sweet mild-mannered boy who was at the wrong place at the wrong time, which gets him sent to the academy. To be honest, MOST places when you’re the wrong skin color in the South. He goes in hoping to keep his head down, but that’s impossible in the Nickel. If you look at some of the guards the wrong way, that will get you a beating.
One ray of light is when Elwood meets Turner, another lost boy who seen some things. They form a tight friendship while they both try to survive a place that is out to beat them down. The school is corrupt and uses the boys as free labor on and off-campus. Elwood and Turner luck out sometimes when working odd jobs for the rich men of the local town. They get to see glimpses of the real world but are reminded to know their place. Even with this “cushy assignment”, Elwood is not satisfied. He is inspired by MLK and feels he needs to change the system. Unfortunately, for Elwood the system is corrupt.
I won’t spoil the ending, but it was a doozy. The story was based upon a real notorious reform school, which makes my heart hurt. I was pleasantly surprised that the violence and abuse were written to be harrowing but not graphic. After reading Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, I dreaded reading this for Mocha Girls Read. Instead, I was gripped almost immediately by the creative storytelling focusing on vivid scenes centered on character. It was less plot and more narrative, which was a relief. I highly recommend this book for fans of Stand By Me and lyrical fiction based on true stories. I would hope by now you have a long list of Black authors to read, which includes Colson Whitehead!