Review: The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead

Review: The Nickel Boys, Colson WhiteheadThe Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
Published by Doubleday Books ISBN: 0385537077
on July 16, 2019
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 214
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
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five-stars

In this bravura follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize, and National Book Award-winning #1 New York Times bestseller The Underground Railroad, 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 of 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 onto 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 that 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 that showcases a great American novelist writing at the height of his powers.

As soon as I heard about the impending publication of The Nickel Boys, it went on my to-read list. Whitehead’s last novel, The Underground Railroad, is one of the best books I’ve read in the last few years. One of the things I appreciated most about The Nickel Boys is that it amplified the stories of the boys who attended the Dozier School for Boys, also known as the Florida School for Boys, and their stories should not be lost. Their stories are horrific, but we owe it to ourselves not to look away—to face what we have done as Americans. Plenty of people knew what was happening in this prison, for calling it a school is inappropriate. Many of the stories out of Dozier are coming from white men who suffered indescribable horrors at this school, but Whitehead’s novel shares the stories of their Black counterparts, who suffered the same atrocities with the additional indignities of Jim Crow, segregation, and racism.

While this novel shines a light on the abuse endured by the boys at Dozier, renamed Nickel in this book, this book is really about a young man, Elwood Curtis, hanging on to his dignity as a human being, attempting to maintain his feelings of self-worth, and passing that regard on to his friend Turner, who thinks people are basically irredeemable (where has he had the opportunity to learn otherwise?) and that the best way to make it through is to keep your head down, and scheme for what you can get. The tragic thing is that places like Nickel have crushed young men like Elwood, and they are doing it as I write this, too. America needs to come to terms with the school-to-prison pipeline and the injustice in sentencing that disproportionately punishes Black and Brown men. My personal opinion is that it’s time, past time, to talk about reparations. Like Ta-Nehisi Coates says, we allow the “how” of reparations stop us from considering the “why,” and books like The Nickel Boys provide plenty of evidence for why. 

Ben Montgomery and Waveny Ann Moore ask in their expose on Dozier, “What is the cost to society of such a place?” As the authors argue, “boys went in damaged and came out destroyed.” A former psychologist at Dozier said, “Anytime you’ve got human beings together, you’re going to have people abusing each other.” But we cannot dismiss what happened like that.

Further Reading:

five-stars

Review: The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad was one of the most discussed books of 2016, so if you haven’t read it, chances are you know something about it. In any case, it is the story of runaway slave Cora who is making her way north from a Georgia plantation using the Underground Railroad, which in Colson’s novel is not a metaphorical name for the network sympathizers, abolitionists, former slaves, and others who helped escaping slaves on their way to freedom but an actual technological marvel—a railroad, under the ground. The book has been compared to Gulliver’s Travels, which earns a mention in the reading of Cora’s friend and fellow escapee, Caesar. At each station or stop in Cora’s journey, she is confronted with a different sort of evil that Americans have perpetrated against their fellow Americans, from bringing them to America in chains, to lynching, to terrorism, to more subtle means of subjugation and deception, such as medical experimentation.

My book club selected this to read, and I knew our meeting was coming up, but I wasn’t sure when until one of my friends reminded me. It’s this coming week! I wasn’t sure I could finish the book in time for our meeting, but I decided I had best pick it up and read at least some of it, especially because I was one of the members who suggested we read it.

I actually couldn’t put it down, and I read it in two big gulps over yesterday and today. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like it. Whitehead plays with documented historical fact, entwining it with speculative fiction, imagining an antebellum America where South Carolina had skyscrapers and an actual railroad leading slaves north ran underground. These fantastic aspects of the novel allow Whitehead to explore the broader history of the African-American experience through the eyes of a single character. The only other way I think he could have done it would have been a sort of immense Roots-like multigenerational epic rather than this tight narrative that allows us into the life of one character. It also allows Whitehead to show the scope of the atrocity of slavery and racism in all its depth and breadth. It’s hard to put down—I wanted to see Cora to safety in the North so badly, that I sat and read for two days! I can’t give the ending away, but I will admit I needed more satisfaction after following Cora on her odyssey all that way. And as much as anything else, the ending has to be that way because it is the truth about the African-American experience.

This novel hit me like Beloved. I credit Beloved with finally helping me get it, as a white woman. After reading Beloved, I felt like for the first time, I had a small understanding of what the lingering and devastating effects of slavery on our country. Of course I can’t ever really understand what I haven’t experienced, but through books like Beloved and The Underground Railroad, I can gain empathy I didn’t have before I read them. This book is Beloved for the next generation. It’s a critical book for our times, just as Between the World and Me is critical. In fact, I recommend they be read back-to-back if you haven’t read either book yet. It’s a wonderful book, and it might be the best one I read all year. It’s certainly in the top five.

Ron Charles (as usual) has a great review in the WaPo. Michiko Kakutani liked it, too, and she is tough. Definitely read both reviews, which capture the power of this novel better than I have been able to do here. As Kakutani so astutely notes in her review, quoting Faulkner, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” In the case of this book, I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book ostensibly about slavery that also so accurately describes our own moment in history.

Rating: ★★★★★

Set in the antebellum South as Cora travels from Georgia to Indiana and that vague fantasyland known as “North,” though with some elements of speculative fiction, this book works for the Historical Fiction Challenge.