The Nickel Boys has been well loved by cannonballers and for good reason. It is an unflinching, unsentimental fictionalized account of the Arthur G. Dozier School, a very real “school” where “delinquent” children as young as five would be, in effect, enslaved by the men who ran the school. Some of the survivors are currently pursuing a class action lawsuit against the State of Florida.
Plot: Elwood is a gentle, intelligent Black boy aspiring to attend college and become a meaningful member of the civil rights movement. Unfortunately, his plans are derailed when he tries to hitchhike to school only to be arrested for it and sentenced to “attend” the Nickel Academy. We follow Elwood’s efforts to learn the ropes, survive, and make it out with his humanity intact.
This book is not heavily plot driven. Some readers complain about a lack of highlight events and I do understand that. There are very few situations that read as Very Important and that signal to the reader to really pay attention. It seems to me to be a deliberate choice by the author, and one which works better and better as the story progresses.
This book is not unusual in premise. There are plenty of novels out there that take on a discrete event, but it is so easy to separate our current reality with the horrors of That Time, or That Place (think of the number of books that talk about anti-semetism only in the context of concentration camps and how often people dismiss anti-semetism as something that doesn’t exist anymore). The Nickel Boys doesn’t let you create that distinction between now and then, does not give you any room with which to dismiss the boys of the Nickel Academy as criminals who got what they deserve as is so often the case when people hear about the mistreatment of (often racialized) prisoners even now.
In my view, this is precisely because of the narrative, distant, almost academic tone that Whitehead takes. In the same way that the boys are crushed under the weight of arbitrary punishment, the reader doesn’t know what events will escalate into something dramatic and which will fizzle out. The tension exists in the not knowing mixed with the dread that something bad is coming.
The other thing Whitehead does exceptionally well is that while we are following, in effect, just one boy going through life, that boy is aware enough of the broader civil rights movement to connect his experiences to that of the broader Black American experience so the reader can’t just say well that’s just one kid, or one “school” or fiction. The Nickel Academy is a microcosm of America, not an outlier.
“The boys could have been many things had they not been ruined by that place. Doctors who cured diseases or perform brain surgery, inventing shit that saves lives. Run for president. All those lost geniuses – sure not all of them were geniuses, Chickie Pete for example was not solving special relativity – but they had been denied the simple pleasure of being ordinary. Hobbled and handicapped before the race even began, never figuring out how to be normal.”
That could be said about any number of laws, policies, and actions of people like those who ran that school and be entirely true.
It is an expertly crafted book and the audiobook narrator, JD Jackson, does an excellent job of delivering it. To learn more about the real people this book was inspired by, google White House Boys and have tissues ready.
Content warning: this is a bit difficult actually. There is violence against children in this book, of course. Some of that violence is small and petty, some of it is extreme. There is murder of children. But these are generally not very graphic. There is nothing gratuitous. In particular, sexual violence, which research tells me was more common than not in the real school this book is based on, is only obliquely mentioned here. On the whole, I felt Whitehead created a story that does not shy away from the horrors that took place, but delivers it in a way that tries very hard to take care of the reader, too.