The Nickel Boys

Colson Whitehead

 
The Nickel Boys
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The Nickel Boys

Colson Whitehead

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

Colson Whitehead’s first novel since his Pulitzer prize-winning The Underground Railroad, The Nickel Boys is historical fiction. Whitehead based the setting on the Dozier School for Boys and drew on interviews with former students to write this novel. Whitehead tells their story with precision and rigour, foregoing the use of any of the surreal flourishes he employed in The Underground Railroad. The Nickel Boys reads like a novel written in the time in which the story is set: a classic novel of the 1960s. The crimes committed by the teachers against their wards are told straight; Whitehead lays out these unthinkable tragedies for the reader to see plainly.

Elwood Curtis is an African American boy trying to make his way in Jim Crow-era Florida. His parents have left him in the care of his grandmother, and despite the many hardships Elwood has faced, he works hard at his schooling, determined to rise above. Aided by a keen intellect and inspired by the teachings of Martin Luther King, Elwood is on the verge of doing the unthinkable: going to college on a scholarship. But through some bad luck, a prejudicial legal system and a miscarriage of justice, Elwood finds himself shipped off to reform school, The Nickel Academy, and his life’s trajectory is irrevocably altered.

Whitehead illuminates the systematic persecution the African American population faced in Jim Crow South, and the persistent negation of their right to a safe and free existence. This can be a hard book to read, but it is absolutely necessary. And given the strange turn the USA is taking, timely. It’s also a story of indomitable spirit, sacrifice and the surprising friendships that bloom under the thumb of tyranny.


Joe Rubbo is the shop manager at Readings Carlton.

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