I started The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead with low expectations. Because of my own tastes as a reader, I was not as awed as the rest of the world by his 2016 bestseller, The Underground Railroad. I could not completely buy into Whitehead’s magical realism and his fantastical vision of an actual railroad, secretly operating underground, freeing slaves. For better or worse, my feet are firmly planted in the historical fiction camp.
And for this reason, The Nickel Boys completely blew me away. It is an amazing documentation of the atrocities endured by the students at a real-life “reform school,” the Dozier School for Boys, which was operated by the state of Florida for over 100 years until it closed in 2011. (A University of South Florida investigation discovered some 55 graves on school grounds by December of 2012, and has continued to identify potential grave sites as recently as March 2019.)
Whitehead’s re-creation of the school and the segregated south that gave rise to it is thoroughly researched; he presents what he learned through the story and relationships of a fictional character, Elwood Curtis. As Elwood tries to attend his first day of college, he finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time and gets accused of stealing a car. He is sent away to become a “Nickel Boy” at the Nickel Academy, where he must endure sadistic treatment beyond imagining.
He endures nonetheless, trying to live by the words and teachings of Martin Luther King, which he was exposed to by the strict grandmother who raised him. Despite everything that happens to him while he is at the school, he persists in his belief that he “is as good as anyone.” His best friend Turner is more the skeptic; he tries his best to protect Elwood from his innocent idealism and its inevitable, sometimes tragic consequences.
No spoilers here, but when I finished the book (in one sitting, on a plane), I was gobsmacked. The Nickel Boys is a totally engaging narrative that shines a light on the physical and emotional scars of racism inflicted by institutions of the Jim Crow south. Within this framework, Whitehead creates truly believable and human characters; he weaves them into a surprising and moving story about friendship, loyalty, and regret.
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Review by Roberta Jordan, Outreach and Instruction Librarian.