Review: ‘The Nickel Boys’ by Colson Whitehead

Page count: 224 | Published: 2019 | Rating: 5 stars!

Book Blurb

Elwood Curtis has taken the words of Dr Martin Luther King to heart: he is as good as anyone. Abandoned by his parents, brought up by his loving, strict and clearsighted grandmother, Elwood is about to enroll in the local black college. But given the time and the place, one innocent mistake is enough to destroy his future, and so Elwood arrives at The Nickel Academy, which claims to provide ‘physical, intellectual and moral training’ which will equip its inmates to become ‘honorable and honest men’.

In reality, the Nickel Academy is a chamber of horrors, where physical, emotional and sexual abuse is rife, where corrupt officials and tradesmen do a brisk trade in supplies intended for the school, and where any boy who resists is likely to disappear ‘out back’. Stunned to find himself in this vicious environment, Elwood tries to hold on to Dr King’s ringing assertion, ‘Throw us in jail, and we will still love you.’ But Elwood’s fellow inmate and new friend Turner thinks Elwood is naive and worse; the world is crooked, and the only way to survive is to emulate the cruelty and cynicism of their oppressors.

The tension between Elwood’s idealism and Turner’s skepticism leads to a decision which will have decades-long repercussions.

Based on the history of a real reform school in Florida that operated for one hundred and eleven years and warped and destroyed the lives of thousands of children, The Nickel Boys is a devastating, driven narrative by a great American novelist whose work is essential to understanding the current reality of the United States.

Review:

“We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

Sentenced to the The Nickel Academy (a reform school set in Jim Crow-era Florida), our two protagonists – Elwood and Turner – witness and experience horrific instances of abuse. Elwood is an idealist; subscribing wholeheartedly to Dr King’s rhetoric on ’loving’ your enemy; in spite of the many injustices he faces (including prior his time at Nickel). Highly sceptical of this perspective, Turner protects himself with cynicism and wit – employing both to avoid trouble/attention.

This book is everywhere at the moment so I won’t delve into the plot (Google is your friend 🤭); some of you won’t connect with this and will deem the prose detached and distant. This is a fair assessment, I’m assuming its Whitehead’s style; I felt the same way whilst reading ‘The Underground Railroad’. That being said, I implore you to read with patience and consider this – is it possible to forgive an enemy that is hellbent on denying your humanity?

I’ve ruminated on that question since March, when I first read this (I also re-read it earlier this month). For me this book was more than a fictitious account of a real life horror (look up the ‘Dozier School for Boys’); it provided a perfect illustration of how those deemed ‘other’ have their humanity denied. It also examined how complicit communities and companies can be in upholding (and profiting from) the ill-treatment of those society considers worthless. ‘The Nickel Boys’ speaks to wider political/social structures in America and how ingrained racism and discrimination is within them; whilst reading I was continually drawing parallels between what was happening at Nickel alongside theory’s on the prison-industrial complex and school to prison pipeline (a reminder that prison = profit to governments/companies).

Whitehead’s strength lies in his ability to make you think beyond what he’s written; I felt compelled to dig deeper and wondered whether MLKs ideology was too optimistic (I lean more towards scepticism), something I pondered on even more so once I’d read the plot twist. I was unable to foresee it during my first read, but the second time around I spotted numerous clues alluding to its existence – show me another author who has the ability to pull this off whilst employing a ‘detached’ style!?! This is a book I know I’ll come back to time and time again, it’s beautifully written and deserves all the superlatives and awards that are inevitably coming it’s way!

Disclaimer – I received an ARC from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.

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