The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
Published: July 2019
Genre: Historical Fiction
Setting: Florida, USA
Rating: 3.5 Stars
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. (Source: Goodreads)
That slavery lasted for 400 years, unchecked and unabated. That Jim Crow swiftly followed for another 100 years. That the colonisation of African States lasted over 50yrs. That Africans are still being held in slavery in Libya. That the Exonerated 5 exist. That Kalief Browder exist(ed). That a black 5yr old girl was handcuffed two weeks ago for throwing a tantrum. That the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys operated for 111yrs. That Colson Whitehead had to write this book, and we still act shocked, bewildered and flabbergasted, almost like we are hearing of this for the first time, refusing to acknowledge that this has been and continues to happen, truly baffles.
Inspired by the true story of the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, The Nickel Boys is a historical fictional retelling of the lives of the boys/men who attended the reform school. It centres around 2 boys - Elwood, the naive, optimistic one who is inspired by and wishes to emulate Martin Luther and whose will is tested at the Nickel Academy; and his best friend Turner who’s more pragmatic and a realist. Both boys are incarcerated at the Nickel Academy, a reform school in Florida where they are ill-treated, abused and tortured.
Whilst I did enjoy the book and cannot fault Whitehead’s writing prowess, I feel like the narrative (especially part 1 and 2) was too distant. I had to dig deep into what I know - what i have seen, heard, watched - on the inhuman treatment of incarcerated black men to find an emotional connection. I had to will Korey Wise into my head to feel and find that connection and whilst some would argue that this distance was intentional, I’m a feeler. I love writers able to reach deep into my soul and make me things.
Part 3 was however the redeeming grace for this book and it’s where I felt the story really come alive. The climax and twist at the end, the non-linear narration, the urgency - that got me and left me wishing Whitehead had started with Part 3. It made me glad i stuck with it.