Saturday, August 03, 2019

The Nickel Boys - Colson Whitehead

The Nickel Boys is Colson Whitehead’s first novel since the immense success he had with The Underground Railroad.That one won six major literary prizes, including a National Book Award for Fiction in 2016, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2017, and the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction in 2017 – not to mention also being longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2017. A lightning bolt like that one is, of course, unlikely ever to strike Whitehead again, but The Nickel Boys is an outstanding novel, and its two main characters are memorable ones.

Elwood Curtis, a young black boy growing up in the Jim Crow era Tallahassee of the early 1960s, lives alone with his grandmother because a few years earlier his parents left him behind like an abandoned piece of furniture when they decided to leave for California in the middle of the night. They didn’t even wake the boy up to say goodbye. But with his grandmother’s guidance, Elwood has done so well that he is now a high school senior who will soon be attending college. However, even hard work cannot always compensate for simple bad luck, and because of one innocent mistake, Elwood is sentenced to a juvenile reformatory known as the Nickel Academy before he ever makes it to the college.

At first, Elwood thinks he may have gotten lucky in being assigned to Nickel because there are no walls around the facility and daily classroom instruction is provided for all of the reformatory’s inmates. He is shocked, however, when he finds that the boys in his class are struggling with the same first-grade primers that he mastered a decade earlier. The reality of the Nickel Academy is that it is staffed by a group of racist predators who seem to enjoy nothing more than beating and sexually abusing the boys under their supposed care. The academy is as segregated as any part of the Jim Crow South, and anything designated – dormitories, the mess hall, classrooms, books, uniforms, food – for use by its black population is definitely second class in comparison to what the white inmates receive. 

Colson Whitehead
Elwood knows, though, that if he just stays out of trouble and does everything asked of him, he will be able to earn an early release from Nickel. And that’s exactly the plan he sets out on right up until the moment he rashly decides to defend a smaller boy being bullied by three or four much larger thugs. Now labeled a troublemaker, Elwood learns firsthand what happens to those boys who are whisked away for punishment in the middle of the night – some of them never to be seen again. Only a few months before his incarceration, Elwood discovered the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, and now he relies on King’s message of non-violent protest and perseverance to get him through his roughest days. 

But as Elwood learns the hard way, if he is going to survive his time in Nickel, he will need more help than mere words will ever be able to provide.  He needs a friend he can trust, someone who will watch his back in an environment where neither staff nor fellow academy inmates should ever be trusted. That friend is Jack Turner, a less academic but more skeptical and worldly boy who understands exactly what is a stake in Nickel Academy and needs a friend of his own.

According to Whitehead, The Nickel Boys is based on the Dozier School for Boys that operated in Marianna, Florida, for 111 years before it was finally shut down. The author uses much of what he learned about the brutality of the Dozier administrative staff in his depiction of what Elwood and others endure at Nickel Academy. Whitehead’s message, other than his reflection on life in the Jim Crow era, is that even those who managed to survive incarceration in places like Dozier and Nickel had their lives forever warped by the experience. Few of these boys managed to become the men they otherwise would have been – and for the most part, no one was ever punished for what they did to them.


  1. I've debated about this one. Sometimes I want a happy ending, especially in today's world. Adding the horrific events of the past to what is going on now is depressing. Nevertheless, the mention of Jack Turner has a more positive feeling.

    1. The Jack Turner character does lessen the tragedy of the overall story somewhat, but even he is scarred for the rest of his life by what happened to him as a boy in that horrible place.

      I can tell you, too, that Whitehead's description of the atrocities that take place during the novel are not very graphic. He leaves it up to the reader to fill in the details with their own imagination - which I suppose can be either a good or a bad thing, depending on the reader.

  2. I have the audio of this one and hope to try it soon but, I may need a lighter read first.

    1. Diane, see my comment, above. This one is not very graphic in style, so the most horrible details are never really spelled out. Whitehead uses an understated style in this novel to tell his story because the torture and murders are not really the core of what he wants to communicate about the time or the people.