Book review: ‘The Nickel Boys’ by Colson Whitehead

Seeing as this is a new novel, I’ll make sure to include no spoilers. There’s a twist that I definitely don’t want to ruin for you all. It’s only a short book at 60,000 words, so you’ll get to it pretty quickly, if that helps!

Colson Whitehead made headlines this week when he won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, for his novel ‘The Nickel Boys’. A career defining moment for any author. Except, it’s the second time he’s won it. In 2017, Whitehead also won the Fiction prize for his book ‘The Underground Railroad’ (only the fourth author ever to do so). I don’t usually read to keep up with popular new fiction, but this was a level of talent I needed to see for myself.

‘The Nickel Boys’ starts with a prologue; an archaeological dig where developers of a shopping mall unearth the bodies of black boys, who were murdered and dumped in potato sacks. A sickening start, but one that we find out in the acknowledgements was inspired by the real Arthur G Dozier School for Boys, which was a juvenile detention center in Florida during the Jim Crow era (the 1960’s). Up to 96 young teens were thought to have been murdered there in total. 

Known as the ‘White House survivors’, a number of brave students (now elderly) came forward after the school closed in 2011, to report what they’d experienced. Dozier was heavily segregated and while the majority of students were black, they weren’t represented in the group of whistleblowers. Whitehead wanted to explore what their experience might have been like.  

When asked about his last three novels, Whitehead says that they’ve been mostly about people “hoping to find a safe haven for themselves in the ruined world.” ‘The Nickel Boys’ is a perfect representation of this. 

Elwood, the main character, is a super-intelligent, optimistic and caring young boy who lives with his grandmother and is growing up at a time of great tension in Florida. There are a hundred acts of insidious racism each day towards him which he endures: “How to get through the day if every indignity capsized you in a ditch? One learned to focus one’s attention.” But he is also optimistic for change, and the speeches of Martin Luther King give him reason to hope that one day he can live his life by a “higher order”, rather than simply being a “colored boy in a white man’s world.” He starts to realise that he can take a more proactive role, against the advice of his grandmother. 

Against the advice of his grandmother, we see young Elwood start to join protests and go from mouthing words along with the crowd, to shouting them out loud. He works hard to educate himself, and he has some allies in the form of teachers and his boss – earning himself a spot taking college classes. 

In a way that is so often seen and feels so incredibly unfair, he is implicated in a crime he had no part in before he can even make it to his first class, and is sent to Nickel Academy.

In 'The Nickel Boys,' Colson Whitehead Depicts a Real-Life House ...
Image courtesy of the New York Times

The horrors that Elwood and his fellow kids endure are suggested in some paragraphs, and graphically described in others. Turner becomes Elwood’s best friend, with a much more pessimistic worldview, having grown up living on his wits. Together, they face the brutal reality of this ‘school’. Nickel is a place that swears to educate and teach discipline, in the hope that the kids could be reformed. But instead it was a jail, and one that would “bend you all kinds of ways until you were unfit for straight life, good and twisted by the time you left.”

Whitehead wants us to understand the depravity of the teachers, but also the wider problem: “You can change the law but you can’t change people and how they treat each other. Nickel was racist as hell – half the people who worked here probably dressed up like the Klan on weekends – but the way Turner saw it, wickedness went deeper than skin color. It was Spencer. It was Spencer and it was Griff and it was all the parents who let their children wind up here. It was people.”

Within the school – as well as holding a yearly black vs whites boxing match which members of the town bet on, and segregating lessons, bathrooms and bedrooms – there was also the ‘White House’. This was a small outhouse that housed a tiny torture chamber, and a huge fan that both masked the sound of screaming, and blew the blood up the walls. And as common as severe injury (as Elwood finds), some kids are taken ‘out back’ and never seen again. 

Colwood’s style of writing is poetic. It is modest and quietly wise, with beautifully visual descriptions that make the act of reading the novel more like watching a movie play out. Some of my favorite lines include: “Elwood’s thoughts traced a groove”; “So complacent and sleepy after years of oppression that they had adjusted to it and learned to sleep in it as their only bed”; “Ishmael was a man of secret menace who stored up violence like a battery”; “The stuff she drank the night she died left her twisted and blue and cold on the front-room sofa.”

The novel is painful to read. Not only because it reflects the truth of oppression and racial division in this era (and the concern that many of us feel about Trump’s election and whether that shows a regression towards a more divisive society today too), but also because it expertly dangles hope in front of the reader. The same kind of hope that a young and optimistic black boy may feel when he’s sent away for a time – only a short time, he convinces himself, if he can be well behaved. Early on, Whitehead drops hints at salvation; people who could come to Elwood’s aid, ways he can be rescued. This kind of structure allows us to get inside his head and hope that he will escape, no matter the hurdles. 

I will leave you to find out for yourself whether or not he can.

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