Wednesday, November 27, 2019

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
Read by J D Jackson
Published July 2019 by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Source: audiobook checked out from my local library

Publisher’s Summary:
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.

My Thoughts:
As I sit down to right this review, I find myself at a loss for words. So, instead, I’ll start off by borrowing a few from those who do this much better than I do.

From Frank Rich of The New York Times Book Review: “an epic account of America's penchant for paying lip service to its original sin while failing to face its full horror and its undying legacy of recidivism…He applies a master storyteller's muscle not just to excavating a grievous past but to examining the process by which Americans undermine, distort, hide or "neatly erase" the stories he is driven to tell…”

From Maureen Corrigan, "A masterpiece squared, rooted in history and American mythology and, yet, painfully topical in its visions of justice and mercy erratically denied . . . a great American novel."

Also from NPR: “The understated beauty of his writing, combined with the disquieting subject matter, creates a kind of dissonance that chills the reader. Whitehead has long had a gift for crafting unforgettable characters, and Elwood proves to be one of his best. . . . The final pages of the book are a heartbreaking distillation of the story that preceded them; it's a perfect ending to a perfect novel.”

Elwood arrives at Nickel hoping for the best, that he will still be able to get a decent education and that the lawyer his grandmother has retained will be able to get him cleared. He is pleased to see there are no fences and learn that there are ways to earn an early release. Even after he is brutally beaten for help another boy who was being beaten up by two other boys, even after he learns that there is no real way to know what you need to do to move up in the ranks as you try to get out early, and even after he sees that food meant for the boys is being sold to local businesses, he still has hope and a belief in the words of Dr. King and that his own intelligence will save him. He is a truly wonderful character but this book is filled with unforgettable characters and Whitehead makes sure that readers know their stories as well.

Whitehead has based this book on the Florida’s Dozier School for Boys. In 2012, a group of men who had been sent to the reform school came forward with stories of the abuse they and the other boys at Dozier suffered and to work to find the bodies of 81 boys now known to have died while at Dozier but whose graves have never been found. These men call themselves the White House Boys because much of the violence committed against them was committed in a small building known as the White House.

The White House at Dozier School
Jerry Cooper was one of those boys. He had been hitchhiking when he was picked up by a man driving a stolen vehicle and Cooper was sent to Dozier for having stolen a car and it is that piece of his story that Whitehead uses as the reason Elwood is sent to Nickel. That is not the only part of the story Whitehead has incorporated into this book, including the White House.

Because I am a white woman who grew up in the suburbs of Middle America, I kept believing that, despite all of the horrific things that were happening in this book, that an innocent young boy would be ok. But I forgot that this is Colson Whitehead and he is not about to let readers get away with living in their safe bubbles. You will pay wake up to the atrocities that were committed and you will see the damage that has been done to this country, but in particular to blacks.


  1. Excellent review, Lisa - especially the last paragraph. I recently read this, too, and thought it was amazing. Now I need to read Colson Whitehead's earlier novels.