August Read of the Month: “The Nickel Boys,” by Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead

Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro

Colson Whitehead once more proves the sheer power of his talent with The Nickel Boys (Doubleday, 2019), a heartbreaking, chilling story about an innocent black youth sent to a hellish reform school in North Florida during the Jim Crow days. While the book is fiction, what makes it so devastating is that it is more true than not. The novel is based on factual accounts of what happened to boys sent to the notorious Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, a so-called reform school run by the State of Florida near Marianna. Investigators are still finding bodies of students from Dozier buried in hidden graves, their skeletons showing evidence of the violent injuries.

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In The Nickel Boys, Whitehead avoids detailed depictions of graphic violence, which makes the story more bearable yet more haunting. He leaves it to the readers to imagine the worst beatings, some resulting in death. This is not a story for the weak stomach or the fainthearted. Nonetheless, this book is so important that it should be read and understood in a primal way so that no one allows a school like this to ever flourish again. To what should be the eternal shame of Florida, the Dozier school existed from 1900 to 2011. It still appears in news stories as more evidence of atrocities emerges.

At the heart of the story, protagonist Elwood Curtis is a hard-working black youth who lives with Grandmother Harriet in the black enclave of Frenchtown in segregated Tallahassee. His parents long ago just took off, but his grandmother is more than able to raise him and is a force of power and a fountain of love for Elwood. She also raises him with a strict hand. Whitehead captures Harriet beautifully in these sentences: “She kept a sugarcane machete under her pillow for intruders, and it was difficult for Elwood to think that the old woman was afraid of anything. But fear was her fuel.”

Elwood receives “the best gift of his life on Christmas Day 1962, even if the ideas it put in his head were his undoing.” The gift was a record album of “Martin Luther King at Zion Hill,” a recorded collection of King’s speeches. After playing the record repeatedly, Elwood decides he is—as King insists—“as good as anybody.” For a black youth in 1962 in Jim Crow Tallahassee, this is a radical and dangerous thought. He participates in a few protests.

With the encouragement of a teacher, Elwood decides to enroll in the area’s black college. He has no means of getting to the school, so he hitchhikes. Unfortunately, the driver who picks him up just stole the car, and Elwood—despite his rather obvious innocence and his excellent reputation—ends up being sentenced to Nickel Academy. While the state-owned reform school claims that it provides the “physical, intellectual and moral training” to turn delinquent boys and youths into “honorable and honest men,” in fact the place is a hellhole of brutality.

Taking a page right out of the actual history of Dozier’s school, Whitehead paints an agonizing portrait of sadistic staff members who beat and rape students, deprive the students of state-supplied food that staffers sell to local restaurants, and intentionally kill youths who protest or even hint at fighting back or running away. As a naïve, well-behaved young person, Elwood lacks the skills to survive in such a grotesque environment. Fortunately, a more savvy youth, Turner, takes Elwood under his wings. But even with Turner’s help, conditions and events only get worse for both youths.

Whitehead can nail a scene, an emotion, and a character in a few sharp words. He heightens fear when Elwood glimpses the backs of two Nickel’s boys, with their “long lumpy lines of scars and what looked like burn marks.” The scars evidence the brutality that no adults want to believe, or if they do, they don’t care. Elwood learns that everyone fears going to the white building where the boys are taken for beatings: “The white boys bruised differently than the black boys and called it the Ice Cream Factory because you came out with bruises of every color. The black boys called it the White House because that was its official name and it fit and didn’t need to be embellished.”

After Elwood innocently tries to stop bullying, he learns the hard way about those long lumpy lines of scars and the White House. Yanked from his bed in the middle of the night, he is beaten so severely that he passes out. He wakes in the school’s infirmity, injured so viciously that he is unable to lay on his back. Whitehead spares readers too many of the brutal details, but does not spare readers from the impact of such beatings on the psyche of the tortured youths. Elwood’s beating endures beyond the actual bloody wounds, and “had him scarred all over, not just his legs,” but the whipping “had weeviled deep into his personality.”

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The Nickel Boys, released this July, is so far a critical and commercial success. The acclaim comes as no surprise, since Whitehead is no stranger to accolades. His most recent previous book, The Underground Railroad, won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, as well as being an Oprah’s Book Club selection, named a New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Time, People and NPR book of the year, and was a number one New York Times best-seller.

The Nickel Boys might suffer somewhat in comparison to The Underground Railroad, which is as close to a perfect book as has been written this decade. While both books use history to shape the story, The Underground Railroad used magical realism to bolster the story in contrast to the straight-forward, often sparse style in Nickel Boys. Yet with its sharp, direct narratives, Nickel Boys is an excellent book even if it is not quite the perfection of The Underground Railroad. As a cautionary tale, Nickel Boys excels. This is a book that should be required reading. One of the most important lessons is found in one of the early sentences: “Plenty of boys had talked of the secret graveyard before, but as it had ever been … no one believed them until someone else said it.”
Let’s be sure that if there is ever a next time, someone will believe.


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