Title: The Nickel Boys
Author: Colson Whitehead
Genre: Historical Fiction
UK Publication Date: 1st August 2019
Summary: from publisher
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.
I was so impressed by The Underground Railroad when I read it a while back so I was really eager to read Whitehead’s latest book, The Nickel Boys, set in 1960s Florida. Like The Underground Railroad it portrays an extremely troubling story and is sadly based on institutions that did, horrifyingly, exist. We follow Elwood as he is sent to a reform school, Nickel Academy, after he is caught up in a situation which is in no way his fault. The ‘school’, if it can even be called that, is rife with injustice, suffering and abuse. In this shocking place Elwood meets Turner, a jaded and cynical boy and together they attempt to navigate the difficult course their lives have taken.
Whitehead is an expert at creating tension in his writing and the intensity with which the reader is thrown briskly into Elwood’s young life is so effective. The tension simmers quietly all the way through, crescendoing at certain moments in a way that keeps the reader on edge. Whitehead also, as with The Underground Railroad, never wastes a single word. He has a clarity which gets straight to the heart of the matter and this keeps up an incredible sense of momentum as the story develops.
The plot itself is harrowing. What I found most affecting is the fact that so many of the youths in The Nickel Boys have been so worn down by their treatment from authority that they seem to just expect hardship and pain. What makes this sad fact even more upsetting is that whilst Elwood, Turner and the other boys are not real people, their story is true. There were so many real boys who went through hell at the real life Nickel Academies. This is a sobering and emotional thought. I had no idea that these places existed in the not so distant past and I’m glad Whitehead has put this story out there with his usual intelligent and brutal storytelling.
I received an advance copy of the book from the publisher. My review is my own honest opinion.
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead.
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