Fiction

Book Review: The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

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“The country was big, and its appetite for prejudice and depredation limitless, how could they keep up with the host of injustices, big and small. This was just one place. A lunch counter in New Orleans, a public pool in Baltimore that they filled with concrete rather than allow black kids to dip a toe in it. This was one place, but if there was one, there were hundreds, hundreds of Nickels and White Houses scattered across the land like pain factories”

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 dramatization of real American history. Set in the early 1960s Civil Rights time and all the horrors of the Jim Crow era in Frenchtown, segregated Tallahassee, Florida. The civil rights movement is gaining ground, the bus boycott happens, restaurant sit-ins, demonstrations, Martin Luther king’s words are spreading across America. Elwood Curtis believes Martin Luther King that he is just as good as his white counterparts, he gets an early enrollment into college to take a couple of college classes during his senior year of high school but one small mistake on his first day of college gets him sentenced to The Nickel Boys Academy.

“Make a career of humanity. Make it a central part of your life.”

The Nickel Academy is a segregated juvenile reform school run by sadistic and racist Maynard Spencer. Elwood finds himself in a terrible school filled with vicious brutality, sexual abuse, torture, and actual killings. As Elwood struggles to maintain King’s higher ideals of love, trust and freedom in the face of his new reality, he meets Turner. Turner has a more cynical and honestly, quite accurate view of the world, believing Elwood to be naive, as he plots and schemes, trying to avoid as much trouble as possible.

“Perhaps his life might have veered elsewhere if the US government had opened the country to colored advancement like they opened the army. But it was one thing to allow someone to kill for you and another to let him live next door.”

I never read Whitehead’s blockbuster book, The Underground Railroad. I don’t know why, I was adequately assured that it was fantastic but I never had any interest in it. So, this is my first Whitehead book and I loved it. It’s short and still manages to convey a great deal of details and emotion. This book is under 250 pages, I read it in one afternoon. This book is an incredibly devastating story that deserved to be told. The goal at Nickel Boys is to rack up points for good behavior and graduate early or just serve your time sentenced at the school but with school officials who have it out for the boys and a corrupt system in place to exploit the students, nobody ever gets reformed. You either graduate when you’re due or you end up dead and buried in the dirt behind the school.

“Problem was, even if you avoided trouble, trouble might reach out and snatch you anyway. Another student might sniff out a weakness and start something, one of the staff dislikes your smile and knocks it off your face. You might stumble into a bramble of bad luck of the sort that got you here in the first place.”

The Nickel Boys is based on the accounts of the real life Dozier School for Boys, once the largest training and reform school in the country. Hundreds of boys died while wards of the state at Dozier, including from gunshot wounds, blunt force trauma, numerous broken bones, or being locked in solitary confinement when a fire broke out. Archaeology students at the University of South Florida have been working for years to uncover graves, document remains and try to trace them where possible to their families of origin. While Whitehead’s dramatization was intense and made me cry, the real true story is even more devastating and insane and it blows my mind that nobody has been punished for it.

“The boys could have been many things had they not been ruined by that place…. denied even the simple pleasure of being ordinary. Hobbled and handicapped before the race even began, never figuring out how to be normal.”

The ultimate sadness of this book is watching so many colored boys’ futures and potentials wiped out. This was supposed to be a school but there was no serious learning, they loaned the boys out to the men on the school boards to be practically slaves, using them to tend farmlands, house chores and in many cases, for sexual favors. The Nickel Boys packed quite a punch and was really difficult to digest considering how even worse the real life events were. I gave this book 5 stars on Goodreads.

 

Leggy

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