Colson Whitehead’s work–from his debut The Institutionist to his Pulitzer- and National Book Award-winning The Underground Railroad (2016)–seems to evoke a number of descriptors: powerful, for one, moving and emotional, for another. The Nickel Boys meets this same criteria and beyond. Though it was my first experience with Whitehead, The Nickel Boys will certainly not be my last; this exceptional story of two boys trapped within a hellish reformatory school in Jim Crow’s Florida is a stirring, dynamic must-read.
“You can change the law but you can’t change people and how they treat each other.”
-Colson Whitehead, The Nickel Boys
From the back cover:
As the Civil Rights movement begins to reach the black enclave of Frenchtown in segregated Tallahassee, Florida, 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 that 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 with repercussions that will echo down the decades. Formed in the crucible of evils Jim Crow wrought, the boys’ fates will be determined by what they endured at the Nickel Academy.
Whitehead is a master at pacing. The Nickel Boys jumps between present day and the ’60s as the plot thickens and we draw nearer to the climax. I never felt bored reading and the book, only 200 pages, moves relatively quickly, but Whitehead still grants his readers enough time to digest the gravity of the situation he crafts. I had plenty of time to ponder the horrors of Nickel and the Jim Crow Era while still seeking the conclusion to Elwood and Turner’s tale.
Speaking of the conclusion… wow!! Never has an epilogue left me so speechless, never have I literally gasped out loud at the ending to a novel. I did not see The Nickel Boys‘ big reveal coming at all. The last scene really brought Elwood’s story full circle, so much so that I even teared up a little. I was not expecting such a happy, satisfactory ending to a book as emotionally hard-hitting as The Nickel Boys, so it came as a pleasant surprise.
Thank you to Doubleday for my copy of The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. All thoughts are my own.
Find this book on Goodreads.