The Nickel Boysby Published 16 Jul 2019
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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
Giddy-up, motherfucker. Says it all really.
In Colson Whitehead's latest historical masterpiece, a horrific, real-life reform school for boys in Florida is fictionalized as The Nickel Academy, a century-old institution where teenage boys, black and white, are sent for the slightest crimes: truancy, petty theft, "disrespecting" a white person, or even the crime of being abandoned by their parents. Extreme abuse, rape, racism, and brutal murder are ruling principles, and the only way to escape is to run away or suffer death at the hands of the sadistic school administrators.
The story is narrated by Elwood Curtis, an ambitious young black man who idolizes Dr. King, looking to his great words as a guide for his own way of existing in the world. He is on his way to college when he finds himself at the wrong place at the wrong time and has his path to success derailed when he lands in the snake-pit that is Nickel Academy, a place which breaks down all of the ideals he held so dear, leaving him to face the ugliness of the world and its random system of undeserved violence and punishment. He becomes close with another resident named Turner, who tries his best to rid Elwood of his infallible naivete and belief in the good of all people.
The most brilliant thing about this novel is the writing and plot structure. Unlike many historical fiction novels, or novels based on true events, Whitehead doesn't spend hundreds of pages building up his setting, or dumping information on the reader. He goes straight into the horrific depths of the story, constructing a novel that shows incredible restraint and nuance. It is the ending that elevated this book from being great to being absolutely stellar and incredibly poignant! I was truly surprised by the revelations in the end, which totally clarified how brilliant and important the non-linear structure is for the story.
This follow-up to the incredible accomplishment that is The Underground Railroad is another monumental work by a phenomenal and powerful artist!
"The world had whispered its rules to him for his whole life and he refused to listen, hearing instead a higher order. The world continued to instruct: Do not love for they will disappear, do not trust for you will be betrayed, do not stand up for you will be swatted down. Still he heard those higher imperatives: Love and that love will be returned, trust in the righteous path and it will lead you to deliverance, fight and things will change. He never listened, never saw what was plainly in front of him, and now he had been plucked from the world altogether. The only voices were those of the boys below, the shouts and laughter and fearful cries, as if he floated in a bitter heaven."
Colson Whitehead, The Nickel Boys
Colson Whitehead has asserted himself as one of the preeminent English language literary figures of our times. Emerging as a talent with his wonderfully inventive debut, The Intuitionist, he followed his first novel with a string of critical successful books, both fiction and non. It was the 2016 release of The Underground Railroad, a magical realist reimagining of the slave escape passage, that garnered him near-ubiquitous acclaim. Chosen as an Oprah book and winning the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the novel is now set for adaptation, with Oscar winning filmmaker Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) directing a six-part limited series.
With all this success, Whitehead could have been forgiven if his follow up novel, The Nickel Boys, was a bit of a letdown. Thankfully, there is no such ebb in quality here and Whitehead demonstrates that right now he's at the top of his game, giving us this haunting and tragic account of the final years of Jim Crow institutions in the the Deep South, institutions eager to give African American bodies as much pain as possible before the era of legal segregation was dismantled completely.
Elwood Curtis is a black teenager living in Georgia in the early 1960s who becomes inspired by the Civil Rights movement and the hope of desegregation it brought with it. Repeatedly listening to the one record his grandmother has, Martin Luther King at Zion Hill, Elwood embraces the emancipatory rhetoric of King and seeks to take advantage of the improved opportunities for African American youth. He studies assiduously and prepares to pursue post-secondary education when misfortune and bad timing results in his conviction for a crime he did not commit and his incarceration in a juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy.
Elwood, a shy and studious boy, must quickly re-evaluate his prospects while figuring out ways to expedite his release. He learns quickly that the stern hand of violent repression still guides the reformatory's philosophy and watches in horror as any stepping out of line can result in cruel torture or death at the hands of white tormentors, none of whom will ever face any consequences. Although he finds friendships and opportunities to avoid some of the worst punitive punishments of the reformatory, Elwood must decide whether his commitment to the justice that King advocated can allow him to silently bide his time and leave in tact the corrupt school so eager to sadistically punish black children.
A gifted story teller, Whitehead's prose is more toned down compared to some of his previous work, but in The Nickel Boys it is his plotting, the slow build up to an unforgettable climax, that is so engrossing. In particular, it is the revelation at the end, one that is so unexpected (despite knowing in advance that something special happens in the end and trying to guess what was going to happen) that leaves the reader shattered. The Underground Railroad also uses a twist at the end, one of an almost absurdist quality, one fitting to explain the genesis of Cora's fantastical journey. The Nickel Boys, however, uses this slight of hand even more powerfully. While much of the novel repeats the theme quite common in African American literary canon, and Whitehead's own work, of white supremacy's subjection of black bodies to abuse and violence, the end of The Nickel Boys demands of his protagonist to take agency for these abused bodies, to refuse to let their stories disappear in past or in this case the grounds surrounding the reformatory. While devastating when revealed, it also echoed the powerful message from Whitehead's speech after winning the National Book Award:
They can't break me, because I'm a bad mother f****r
What is so amazing about Whitehead is his mastery of different voices, different techniques, different genres. Of the four books of his I have read, no two is the same, let alone similar. From the noir detective quality of The Intuitionist, to the embrace of horror and magical realism in The Underground Railroad, Whitehead appears comfortable writing anything. With The Nickel Boys we get another taste of Whitehead's talents, writing a more conventionally structured telling of Jim Crow that is gripping and powerful and incredibly timely at a time when more and more are shouting out loud to power: You can't break me.
The Florida Dozier School for Boys opened in 1900 and didn’t close until 2011. In this novel, it is renamed the Nickel Academy and the story is partially based upon true events that took place during the early 1960’s. Some of the boys, both black and white, had committed crimes while others didn’t have families or were runaways. The school didn’t provide an academic education or help of any kind. Instead, these young boys (ages 18-21) were subjected to brutal beatings, sexual abuse, and unimaginable torture which led many to their deaths. Elwood winds up at the school by making an innocent decision with unforeseeable consequences. Being a southern town in the deep south during the 1960’s, the court’s decision was racist. Once incarcerated, Elwood finds friendship with fellow captive in the cynical Turner. The novel follows these boys as they try to survive the hellish prison. It is harrowing to know the abuses at this school continued into the 21st century. Whitehead is saying, “Look at this.” I looked and so should you.
The Nickel Boys is what happens when The Shawshank Redemption meets When They See Us meets 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 (basically 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 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. 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.