Review: The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

I’ve postponed this review because Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys isn’t the easiest book to review. Though it’s a fictional story, the setting is based on a real place, the Dozier School for Boys. This “reform school” was closed in 2011 after decades of abuse allegations. Fifty-five unmarked graves were found in 2012 and other potential graves have been identified since. Unlike The Underground Railroad which takes a long view of history, this story is tightly focused around Elwood Curtis’s experience on the edge of the civil rights movement.

Elwood is a straight-A student who views the world with a kind of naive optimism. He idolizes Martin Luther King Jr. and key lines from his speeches echo though the book. He suffers a variety of injustices—he’s tricked into accepting a blank set of encyclopedias, and the secondhand books donated by the white school are defaced with the n-word. One day, he hitches a ride from someone in a stolen car and is sent to Nickel Academy.

Though he tries to apply his resilience and optimism to his time at Nickel, Elwood cannot distance himself from the violence around him. The actual scenes of abuse leave a lot to a reader’s imagination, but they are written with enough detail that what happens is unambiguous. Even when Elwood is not subjected to violence directly, there’s a sickening feeling of dread over every moment in Nickel.

Those who didn’t like the more fantastical elements in The Underground Railroad will likely prefer The Nickel Boys. It’s a grounded, wrenching story. Though Elwood’s optimism is resilient, and though he feels less alone when placing his struggles in the larger context of the civil rights movement, the reader knows he’s deeply alone in the sense that no one is coming to save him. He will remain at Nickel until released by the system that sent him there.

On Elwood’s optimism, Whitehead said the following in a Fresh Air interview:

And I think I was struck, when I was going back, you know, reading about Martin Luther King and the early civil rights struggle, how unlikely all those people were, you know, to believe that they could beat back 200 years of systematic oppression. And they did it, you know, sort of action by action. And so definitely while I was writing, you know, Elwood seemed like a very rare sort. But he was not alone. You know, he was part of a generation that really did change the country in an important way. Of course, we – you know, we slide back a bit. But they really did pull off miraculous things.

Elwood’s optimism is key because his changing relationship to Dr. King’s words shapes his development:

Elwood tried to get his head around it, now that it was no longer the abstraction floating in his head last spring. It was real now. . . . The capacity to suffer. Elwood—all the Nickel boys—existed in the capacity. Breathed in it, ate in it, dreamed in it. That was their lives now. Otherwise they would have perished. The beatings, the rapes, the unrelenting winnowing of themselves. They endured. But to love those who would have destroyed them? To make that leap? We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. Elwood shook his head. What a thing to ask. What an impossible thing. (172)

I’m split on the ending. Some reviewers say that the end invalidates what came before. I disagree—it’s not a bad ending, or a misstep. Something is off about it, though. If this book were less painful, I’d be tempted to read it again from the beginning and look at how everything fits together—Whitehead is too good a writer for it not to fit together—but I don’t expect to reread this book for quite a while.

Overall: 4.9 (out of 5.0)

Image credit: Goodreads

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