The Nickel Boys  – ★★★★★
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter” (Martin Luther King, Jr.).
“Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth” (Albert Camus).
Colson Whitehead’s latest book is the story of Elwood Curtis, a clever and hard-working boy, who is sent to the Nickel Academy for boys after one “misunderstood” event. Drawing inspiration from a real, shocking story of the Dozier School for Boys in Florida (subsequently known for its mistreatment and abuse of boys), Whitehead paints a gruesome picture of one school that employs shocking corrective procedures that can break any human spirit and hope for the future. Through Elwood, we enter a dictatorial organisation whose rules must be obeyed at all costs because the price for not doing so is hard to put into words. Idealistic Elwood, who worships the sermons of Dr Luther King, soon has to confront one way of life filled with arbitrary violence, indifference, heartlessness and hypocrisy. In this environment, Elwood must learn fast how the place is run in order to survive, and the book is also a story of coming to terms with one’s horrific past. Neither Elwood nor his story may seem original, but the account is very heart-felt, not least because this is a story about the fight for freedom and against institutional injustice and racism. There have been many Elwoods throughout history, people who were either crippled for being who they are; whose spirits were broken before they could lead a life of peace; or those who simply did not make it alive, having gone through a system that should not have existed in the first place. Preserving the memory of these people is the point of Whitehead’s latest book.
Colson Whitehead takes the real case of Florida’s Dozier School as his inspiration – human remains were found at the school site and showed signs of brutal abuse and torture. However, Florida’s school is far from being the only institution that came into spotlight because of its previous horrific events, including torture. One real 193-year-old reform school in Philadelphia – Glen Mills Schools – has also been recently investigated for child abuse. Moreover, numerous other books and films have already talked about the topic – horrors of reform schools/ military institutions were the subject of Sleepers  by Lorenzo Carcaterra (The Nickel Boys shares some evident similarities with this book and there is also a truly horrific and hard-to-watch film Sleepers ); and also of the book by Nobel prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa titled The Time of the Hero (La Cuidad y Los Perros) . Other films also talked about the consequences of having attended a strict hierarchical institutional establishment, including A Few Good Men , based on a play and One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest , based on a book. The subject matter of these books/films is very emotional and the stories – heart-breaking. The Nickel Boys, a more concise story, is no different.
“Even in death the boys were trouble”, so begins this book by Colson Whitehead. At the beginning of the story, there is an ongoing excavation of human remains – an unmarked graveyard was found on the premises of the Nickel Academy for boys, and into this graveyard numerous bodies of boys must have been dumped at some point. Secrecy and suppression of truth previously ruled at the Nickel Academy – “plenty of boys had talked of the secret graveyard before, but as had ever been with Nickel, no one believed them until someone else said it” [Colson Whitehead, 2019: 3]. The story then shifts to Elwood, a good, hard-working boy who strives for knowledge and goodness, being a fan of the sermons of Martin Luther King. “There are people who trick you and deliver emptiness with a smile, while others rob you of your self-respect. You need to remember who you are” [Colson Whitehead, 2019: 25] – Elwood believes that. Though growing up in a rough neighbourhood with his grandmother, who is a cleaner in a hotel, he is idealistic and unlike other boys around him. He wants to be better, feels great love for his family, and has a strong sense of justice. We get to know his story well and feel great sympathy for this character who just tries to do his best in life as he works in a tobacco shop and dreams for a better future for himself and his grandmother.
Colson Whitehead sets his story in a very curious historical period – a challenging period to live in for the poor and vulnerable. That time is just after the Supreme Court decision in the ground-breaking case of Brown vs. Board of Education . In this case, it was decided that imposing segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. This must also have been the time of another famous event when Rosa Parks, a black woman, refused to stand up on a crowded bus and give her sit to a white passenger. That refusal meant her immediate arrest. Elwood in The Nickel Boys also feels this rising injustice, even if laws are slowly turning in favour of his people in the country. Being black and being in a wrong place at a wrong time sometimes meant one’s whole life and ambition reduced to a near zero and that what Elwood must have also felt when he entered the Nickel Academy “to be corrected” for the first time.
In the story, the Nickel Academy has “four ranks of behaviour… a Grub, the Explorer, the Pioneer, and finally Ace” [Colson Whitehead, 2019: 47]. A student may progress on this hierarchical ladder and finally be freed. However, the school is very strict and is based on conformity, obedience, hard-work…as well as horrific methods of punishment and arbitrary abuse. Even when inside the school, young Elwood does not lose his idealism or hopes for the future, though he does desperately try to reconcile his inner vision of the world to the deprivation and injustice he sees all around him: “horror comics, he’d noticed, delivered two kinds of punishment – completely undeserved and sinister justice for the wicked. He placed his current misfortune in the former category and waited to turn the page” [Colson Whitehead, 2019: 71]. Inside, Elwood sets his goal to do his best and achieve the highest status to be freed. However, he may not have the full picture of what is in store: indifferent medical care and innocent words invented by boys to camouflage the horrors of unspeakable treatments are just some of the revelations. Then, Elwood befriends Turner at the Academy, a cynical boy who is used to run with a wild crowd. As with good-natured and innocent Elwood, we can find an archetype in Turner as well. He is one’s rule-breaking and eccentric friend (think Boris in Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch ). The contrast between Elwood and Turner is palpable in the novel, and yet the duo becomes close friends who trust each other. Dreams of revenge and escape then take this friendship to a whole new level, as the story also jumps years, showing the effect of the school on the already adult characters.
When comparing The Nickel Boys to Whitehead’s best-known book The Underground Railroad, it is interesting to note that, in both, the author takes a very familiar theme (slavery injustice in The Underground Railroad and the horrors of reform schools in The Nickel Boys), and makes his characters slightly stereotypical (strong-willed and wronged slave girl Cora and hard-working and intelligent boy Elwood), but, nevertheless, manages to make his accounts read like insightful and hard-to-put-down works. One of the reasons is that the topics of society-inflicted injustice and the fight for justice are close to Whitehead’s heart and we, as readers, cannot but be engrossed in these timeless topics that concern an individual fighting an unfair system. Another reason is Whitehead’s writing style. Whitehead has been accused of writing “coldly” and “unemotionally”, but I would say that his “matter-of-fact” writing is merely without unnecessary details and embellishments – “factual”, giving the feeling that every sentence is some fact that should not be disputed, conveying a strange power on the events described. That is how difficult and highly emotional subjects should be written about, thereby making the stories feel more real, as though the author tells us – “that is simply how it was. What else to add?” And, he is right – truth is simple and unelaborate – it does not need long paragraphs to be conveyed fully: Ecclesiastes 6:11 – “The more words you speak, the less they mean”. Some examples from the book are “that was Elwood – as good as anyone” and “let the world be a mob – Elwood will walk through it” [Colson Whitehead, 2019: 84].
Whitehead’s book has vivid character portrayals and some unflinching descriptions, but it is probably its ending, making one want to rethink the whole story, which is the talking point for many. Knowing that the story so far has been more or less predictable, Whitehead tries something unusual regarding the book’s ending, and it works effectively.
The Nickel Boys may be a short book, but it feels like a significant tome – “heavy” and “liberating” at the same time. It reads like a powerful story-treatise, paying tribute to the innocent lives that longed to see justice and peace in the world, but who were never given this chance. It is about humility and goodness that faced the evils of society, such as institutional cruelty and racism. Though at times unnerving and hard-to-read, The Nickel Boys is also written in Whitehead’s usual factual tone that emphasises the truthfulness of an account, leaving no doubt about the author’s conviction. Whitehead’s voice is unique, his story is timeless and the story’s importance – undeniable.