Review: The Nickel Boys
Updated: Sep 12, 2021
The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead (2019)
Tough read, but worthwhile. This is a sad story, but so well written. It is based on the true accounts of what can easily be called inmates (not students) of the Florida Dozier School for Boys - a reform school operated from 1900 to 2011.
This fictionalize account is set in the 1960's. Elwood Curtis, a young, idealistic, and studious Black boy in line to begin college courses, is accused of stealing a car, and sent to Nickel Academy. At first blush, the institution looks like it will be friendly enough - football fields where boys play games, classes every day, rec. room and library. But Elwood learns very quickly that there is nothing idyllic about Nickel, where employees routinely exploit, torture, and sexually abuse their charges - Black and white alike, though racism dictates that the Black boys are treated far worse. Elwood makes one close friend, Turner, and otherwise keeps his head down, and tries to hang on to some of the confidence and optimism that makes him unique.
Back in the present day, archeologists excavate Nickel Academy's graveyard, as well as an unmarked area with unaccounted-for bodies, revealing some of the atrocities dealt out to the boys. The reader is left to speculate, until the final chapter, on who might be amongst them. This storyline directly corresponds with excavations done at the Dozier School in 2012, after its closure.
Whitehead's writing is concise and honest. The plot is tight, and the story masterfully told. There is no excess fat to trim off - The reader is not shielded from the horrors of Nickel Academy, but we are not left to drown in them either. While I liked Whitehead's breakout novel, The Underground Railroad, the story there felt a little gimmicky and forced to me. Nickel Boys is a more painful read, but less contrived, and with better writing (and therefore probably better editing). Both books, however, successfully illuminate a uniquely American, racial injustice.
2020 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
2020 Orwell Prize for Political Fiction
2020 Alex Award
2019 Kirkus Prize for Fiction
UP NEXT: The Italian Secretary, by Caleb Carr
(Just need something easy and fun in between The Nickel Boys and Twelve Years a Slave)