The Nickel Boys

Book Review

Title : The Nickel Boys

Author: Colson Whitehead

Publisher: Doubleday

Date of Publication: 2019

Number of Pages: 224

My Rating 5 out of 5

The Nickel Boys is Colson Whitehead’s latest novel, published in July 2019. Colson Whitehead is an American author with eight other published books. In 2016, he won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction and the National Book Award for his book The Underground Railroad. It was also named one of the Ten Best Books of the Year.

The Nickel Boys is a historical fiction book set in the 1960s, a time when racial discrimination was rife in the US. At the same time, the civil rights movement was gaining momentum. The main character, Elwood Curtis lives with his doting grandmother in Tallahassee, Florida after his parents take off in the night. He is a straight-A student who is fascinated by the outstanding teachings of Martin Luther King Jr that he listens to continuously.

Due to his grandmother’s good influence, he is honest, hardworking and well on his way to college. He genuinely seems to have a bright future ahead of him. Unfortunately, life in the Southern parts of the US during the Jim Crow laws era could spring some unexpected surprises on black lads.

Elwood finds himself at the Nickel Academy for boys, a segregated reform school. He makes good friends at the Academy. One of them, Turner, is a streetwise orphan from Houston. The two have contradictory attitudes toward life. Elwood, guided as he is by the teachings of Dr. King, genuinely believes in taking control and transforming the world. Turner believes in lying low in order to survive.

Elwood soon learns that at Nickel, “academic performance has no bearing on one’s progress to graduation” and the teachers do not care much about grades. What counts is “work, comportment, and demonstrations of compliance or docility.” Within a short time, he gets to know what happens when one steps out of line at Nickel.

Life at the academy is brutal, miserable, and it’s easy to get into trouble. Instances of terrible violence, bullying, sexual abuse, and neglect are common. In addition, mysterious disappearances are often classified as escapes. The administration is inept and corrupt and motivated by self – interest. The boys are trying their hardest to survive and get out of Nickel.

Colson Whitehead narrates this fascinating tale of unutterable woe in a captivating style that kept me hooked till the very end. Though it is a short book at just over 200 pages, it is full of emotion and action. I was powerfully drawn into the boys’ lives – horrified by the tragic events and shocked at the excessive brutality that is meted out on them.

I equally found myself rooting for them, though as everybody knows from horrific real-life events from that era, not everybody gets a happy ending. Can anybody escape unscathed and manage to build a happy successful life? What does it take to survive in such an environment?

The book is based on a real school in Florida, known as the Dozier School. In an interview with the New York Times, Colson said he hoped to “highlight the experience of black students at the Dozier school, who, under segregation, “got it worse” than the white boys, and whose stories have not generated as much attention.”

It is heart-rending to imagine that such brutality was unleashed on young boys, in the name of ‘reform.’ Whatever it was  those boys had done, such cruel treatment was totally uncalled for. Though a fictional retelling of the story, it conveys some good insight into the unfortunate circumstances that led some of the boys into the school. It clearly demonstrates how the corrupt system terribly failed them.

My sole hope as I read the book was that such places do not exist today. I hope that as a generation, we are able to learn from the events of the past to ensure we are more responsible in the way that we handle matters around racial discrimination.

Unfortunately, like many others, Colson expressed the view that it seems we are regressing as a society, which is highly regrettable. Hopefully, this book will get people thinking and talking about what happens when parts of society are treated as being sub-human.

When despite all their best efforts, they find themselves on the wrong side of the law. To make matters worse, those who are entrusted with the authority to aid their reform have no interest in doing so. Instead, they ensure a speedy descent towards their ultimate downfall.

I recommend you pick this book up today and have a read. It is masterfully crafted by an experienced award-winning author who does not disappoint!

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