The Nickel Boysby Published 16 Jul 2019
|The Nickel Boys.pdf|
Colson Whitehead brilliantly dramatizes another strand of American history through the story of two boys sentenced to a hellish reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida.
As the Civil Rights movement begins to reach the black enclave of Frenchtown in segregated Tallahassee, Elwood Curtis takes the words of Dr. Martin Luther King to heart: He is "as good as anyone." Abandoned by his parents, but kept on the straight and narrow by his grandmother, Elwood is about to enroll in the local black college. But for a black boy in the Jim Crow South in the early 1960s, one innocent mistake is enough to destroy the future. Elwood is sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called The Nickel Academy, whose mission statement says it provides "physical, intellectual and moral training" so the delinquent boys in their charge can become "honorable and honest men."
In reality, The Nickel Academy is a grotesque chamber of horrors, where the sadistic staff beats and sexually abuses the students, corrupt officials and locals steal food and supplies, and any boy who resists is likely to disappear "out back." Stunned to find himself in such a vicious environment, Elwood tries to hold on to Dr. King's ringing assertion "Throw us in jail and we will still love you." His friend Turner thinks Elwood is worse than naive, that the world is crooked and the only way to survive is to scheme and avoid trouble.
The tension between Elwood's ideals and Turner's skepticism leads to a decision whose repercussions will echo down the decades. Formed in the crucible of the evils Jim Crow wrought, the boys' fates will be determined by what they endured at The Nickel Academy.
Based on the real story of a reform school in Florida that operated for one hundred and eleven years and warped the lives of thousands of children, The Nickel Boys is a devastating, driven narrative.
The Nickel Boys Reviews
Five blood freezing, rage boiler, pump squeezer, creator of several lumps on your throat, tear jerker, wake up call for all the injustice, unacceptable, unfair wrongdoings of the system stars!
As soon as I closed the book, I just sat for at least two hours, paralyzed, did nothing, lost, confused, agitated, speechless, deeply, wholeheartedly, painfully sorry for the characters and all the suffering they had to endure. The worst thing is I didn’t read a fiction, I definitely read something based on true stories.
When you’re surrounded by your own choices which make you feel safe and careless and stick to your daily routine, reach out to your own comfort zone,you always tend to forget what happens at the outside! This book makes you remember it with a harsh, vulgar, ugly slap on your face! It makes you remember, outrageous, darkest shameful era of American history.
It starts with Elwood’s story who is smart, who likes comic books so much, who is hard-worker and who has bright future by starting his college education. But everything changed as soon as he found himself a stolen car and accused wrongly as a thief, was sent to Nickel Academy, segregated juvenile, full of racism, torture, abuse, brutality.
Elwood seems like a naïve who still thinks he could fight against injustice, corruption, repression in the school. As soon as he meets with cynical, smart, practical Turner who finds his partner in crime to survive in this jungle.
You can find the great balance and mash-up of many produced, perfect stories of injustice in this book starting from “Kill a Mockingbird”, “Fruitvale Station”, “ Do the right thing”, “When They See Us”, “Shawshank Redemption”.
If you could survive after reading brutal, aggressive, raw, raging things that the characters endured and fought against by sharpening their survival skills and have a good stomach to absorb the details you’re gonna read because there are so many truths hidden inside between the lines, this book is great way to face the other side of frightening human history that encourages you do something by raising your voice and stop acting like three wise monkeys by opening your eyes!
The ending was another surprise and gut wrenching twist knocks you out!
I wanted to finish my review with the remarkable words of Martin Luther King Jr’s quote:
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly”
Sigh… Sigh…Sigh… I think I will continue to sit, speechless, lost, shaken, angsty, sad…I need more time to absorb what I’ve just read!
(revised review - 5 stars)
“It was quite a sight, all the boys, big and small, hustling in unified purpose, paint on their chins, the chucks wobbling as they ferried the cans of Dixie.”
As part of their “community service,” The Nickel Boys paint buildings Dixie White, while avoiding sadistic and potentially fatal beatings delivered via a leather strap named Black Beauty. The boys, “cheaper than a dime-a-dance and you got more for your money, or so they used to say,” are in segregated juvenile detention in Jim Crow Florida for crimes of malingering, mopery, incorrigibility, or being an orphan, just as the generations before them had served time for vagrancy, changing employers without permission, and “bumptious contact,” i.e. bumping into a white person or failing to step off the sidewalk to let a white person pass.
The goal at Nickel Academy is to earn points and status rankings. However, the rulebook for points and status rankings has never been seen, because “like justice, it existed in theory.” Achieving status would mean the interred might get discharged from the Academy, fully “reformed,” rather than end up in an unmarked grave on the property.
The main character, Elwood, is a serious and squeaky-clean young man who gets straight As and saves his report cards for the day they desegregate Fun Town, an amusement park in Atlanta advertising throughout the South that children with a perfect report card were guaranteed free admission (leaving out the implied “whites only” in the ad). He listens to a record of a Martin Luther King Jr. on repeat. With Civil Rights marches happening around him (it is 1962) and moved by the work of King, he strives to be a man of dignity. Still in high school, he’s chosen to attend college courses at Melvin Griggs Technical, the “colored” college just south of town. On the first day of classes, he accepts a ride from a stranger to get to Griggs, but the ride leads him straight to the Nickel Academy campus instead when it ends up the car is stolen. His entry beating to the Academy puts him in the school’s infirmary for weeks.
The Nickel Boys is based on the accounts of the real life Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida, once the largest training and reform school in the country. Hundreds of boys died while wards of the state at Dozier, including from gunshot wounds, blunt force trauma, numerous broken bones, or being locked in solitary confinement when a fire broke out. Archaeology students at the University of South Florida have been working for years to uncover graves, document remains and try to trace them where possible to their families of origin.
The Nickel Boys is a harrowing look at the trauma of juvenile prisons under Jim Crow as told through the fictional experiences of Elwood and his friend Turner. One will make it out and live to tell the tale; he’ll even go on to subconsciously name his business after the highest-level status rank could achieve at Nickel, the level that got you out of the academy: “Ace: out in the free world to make your zigzag way.” As characters, Elwood represents the strain of thought that believes social change is possible, that humans can aspire to and achieve a higher purpose together, while Turner, grounded in the current world, believes it is dumb and mean and one must learn to navigate that.
Readers familiar with the convict leasing system won’t be surprised to find that the boys maintain the homes of those who serve on the board of the Academy in addition to the parks and public spaces of Eleanor, FL. Elwood tries to bring attention to both the corruptions and living conditions at the Nickel Academy, but “the country was big, and its appetite for prejudice and depredation limitless, how could they keep up with the host of injustices, big and small. This was just one place. A lunch counter in New Orleans, a public pool in Baltimore that they filled with concrete rather than allow black kids to dip a toe in it. This was one place, but if there was one, there were hundreds, hundreds of Nickels and White Houses scattered across the land like pain factories,” and it would take another 50 years before the truth would come out about what had happened to young men there.
Caption: From Library of Congress: Orphaned children and juvenile offenders could be bought to serve as laborers for white planters in many Southern states from 1865 until the 1940s. (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection, LC-D428-850)
This is a "does the moral arc of the universe bend towards justice? Or not?" kind of book, and Whitehead himself doesn't come down on either side of the argument, rather showing how reality and aspirations weave and wobble between extremes, like Obama's remarks the day after Trump's election - "the path that this country has taken has never been a straight line. We zig and zag and sometimes we move in ways that some people think is forward and others think is moving back." Indeed, as Whitehead shows, it can be hard to be idealistic in the face of so much ugly history. "It was impossible, like loving the one who wanted to destroy you, but that was the message of the movement: to trust in the ultimate decency that lived in every human heart."
The overarching sadness of this book is in the boys' potential, snuffed out. As Whitehead writes, “the boys could have been many things had they not been ruined by that place…. (they were) denied even the simple pleasure of being ordinary. Hobbled and handicapped before the race even began, never figuring out how to be normal.”
The Nickel Boys is an intense take on the justice system in the Deep South during the turning points of the Civil Rights movement, and what that movement meant for individuals, connecting it to both the longer racialized history of the prison system in the South after reconstruction and the results the Civil Rights movement brought about in modern times. (For more on Southern justice after reconstruction, Oshinsky's Worse Than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice is an absolute mind-blower and seminal reading.)
In the end The Nickel Boys is a lot to digest, mostly because the actual history is so heavy.
I had mixed feelings about the seemingly dispassionate voice that Whitehead uses to describe much of the boys' experiences; it felt like an emotionally-removed telling of events that were actually quite intense. I initially gave it four stars because I found that approach unsettling. But Ron Charles convinced me that perhaps this approach was taken to avoid sensationalizing or glorifying the boys' pain over communicating the facts.
At the book's conclusion, the story's survivor, now a successful small businessman, does get to dine at the restaurant his friend had always dreamed of seeing a black person eat in as a child. So while this post-Jim Crow era (and he poses the question - what do we call this period now, with so much unresolved?) hasn’t settled many or even most thorny issues around history and race in America, Whitehead does point to some progress ~ the same progress others point to when they write about Whitehead.
I loved this novel. It is rich with detail, the plot twists in a really interesting way, the novel's structure is pretty brilliant and overall, this is an ambitious book that was really well executed. It is a coming of age story where that coming of age is warped by the atrocities of a school for boys in segregated Florida. As Elwood awakens to the civil rights movement, he is stripped of nearly all his rights. The more he understands the freedom he deserves, the less freedom he has and that juxtaposition drives this remarkable novel.
At times, there were bits of prose that felt a bit, half-hearted, like filler until he got to the part he was more interested in. I would have given this five stars but Whitehead uses cement instead of concrete at least 7 times. I stopped counting after 7 times because it was too upsetting. Cement, water, and aggregates make concrete! Cement and concrete are not synonyms. Why do copyeditors not catch this? WHY? Anyway, great novel. People are going to love this one. BUT STILL! CEMENT IS NOT CONCRETE.
A world of injustice or the truer, biding world?
The Nickel Boys melds When They See Us with The Shawshank Redemption and Colson Whitehead’s faultless instincts as a novelist. Some books are 5 stars because they strike a chord with your own specific reading tastes; some are 5 stars because they are so good everybody should read them. This book is firmly in the latter category.
The Nickel Boys is about a reformatory school for boys (effectively a prison) during the Jim Crow years, based on a real-life institution and the horrendous abuses that took place there. Whitehead treats this material with care – it is a finely calibrated balancing act that conveys the truth of what occurred in such places, without resorting to shock value or stepping over the line into gratuitous detail. This is a novel that achieves its emotional resonance not through explicit brutality, but by making the reader fall in love with its characters.
We follow Elwood Curtis, a sweet kid, diligent, bright, aspiring to a college education. His misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time (‘wrong’ for an African-American boy in 1960s Florida, wrongness being relative) lands him at The Nickel Academy. There Elwood befriends the streetwise and cynical Turner, whose personality contrasts starkly with his own. Nevertheless, they form a life-long bond, their destinies forever intertwined.
At Nickel, Elwood struggles to reconcile a self-preservation instinct with his idealistic streak: he knows the best way to survive is to keep his head down but at the same time his conscience compels him to emulate his heroes in the Civil Rights movement, to make a stand. With nuance and delicacy, the novel explores this impossible paradox of trying to resist an oppressive power structure while living within it – any form of activism is at the risk of one’s own life.
Whitehead’s prose style here is deceptively plain. Economical and direct, this is the kind of writing that belies its own sophistication and makes this a very accessible read (still not an 'easy' one, due to the subject matter). The cadence and tone evoke an earnestness and sense of innocence (or perhaps, naïveté) that captures the spirit of the story perfectly. It’s also quite a short book that, for its size, makes a mighty impression. The Nickel Boys is a novel with an enormous heart that’s sure to break yours. 5 stars.
The thought of this book stirs up a pain so sharp it almost seems my flesh lay open.
There is so much I can’t figure out how to say in words right now. My heart feels as raw as a burn; a feeling made all the more resonant by the realization that the story is inspired by true events, that it captures between its page the remembered violence of America's history—fathomless and ugly.
Colson Whitehead refuses to do their reader the dishonor of the lies, the comfortable omissions, and I'm glad for it.