The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

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Reviewed by Harriet

Nickel Boys Colson Whitehead

Having been blown away by Colson Whitehead’s 2016 prizewinning novel The Underground Railroad, I was delighted to see that this new work was due out this summer. Delighted but also a bit apprehensive – could it possibly measure up to the brilliance of that work? I needn’t have worried. While it lacks what his earlier novel had, a sort of magic realist vision of an invented underground railway line taking escaped slaves to freedom, this one, firmly rooted in realism, is equally moving and impressive.

Based on the true story the Arthur D Dozier School in Florida, one of twentieth-century America’s most brutal borstal schools, the novel takes place inside a fictional institution called the Nickel School. Though the place was said to be named for its founder, its inmates believe it is so called ‘because their lives weren’t worth five cents’. This proves to be only too true.

The protagonist of the novel is Elwood Curtis, an intelligent and scholarly black teenager. Elwood has been raised by his grandmother following the death of his parents, and is determined to make the best of his life. When he gets a record player, his religious grandmother forbids him to play music, so instead he gets a record of the speeches of Martin Luther King and listens to them till the grooves wear out. He lugs home an abandoned set of encyclopedias, only to find that just the first pages of the first volume are printed and the rest are blank – it’s a salesman’s demonstration set. Undeterred the boy studies the existing entries, reads, and signs up for classes. He’s offered the chance of furthering his education with free college courses, but to get there he needs to hitch a ride. Unfortunately the man who picks him up turns out to be a car thief, and when he is arrested, Elwood – despite being wholly innocent of the theft – ends up being sent to the Nickel School. His first impressions, having arrived in a police van chained to three white boys, take him by surprise:

He got a look at the school and thought maybe Franklin was right – Nickel was not all that bad. He expected tall stone walls and barbed wire, but there were no walls at all.The campus was kept up meticulously, a bounty of lush green dotted with two and three-storey buildings of red brick. The cedar trees and beeches cut out portions of shade, tall and ancient. It was the nicest school Elwood had ever seen – a real school, a good one, not the forbidding reformatory he’d conjured up in the last few weeks.

It hardly needs to be said that this positive view proves to be completely delusional. Walls are not needed at Nickel because nobody dares to try to escape. Punishments are severe – there’s a special whitewashed building whose sole purpose is the savage beatings that are carried out at night on anyone deemed to deserve it. Boys disappear completely, undoubtedly killed by the savage white jailers. Elwood himself is eventually a victim of the beatings, and takes weeks to recover. The experience gives him food for thought:

There was no higher system guiding Nickel’s brutality, merely an indiscriminate spite, one that had nothing to do with people. A figment from tenth-grade science struck him: a Perpetual Misery Machine, one that operated by itself without human agency. Also, Archimedes, one of his first encyclopedia finds. Violence is the only lever big enough to move the world.

Elwood makes a friend inside Nickel. Turner is in many ways his complete opposite. He isn’t interested in hearing about Martin Luther King’s vision of a better world. His view is that the world is as it is, and his job is to learn how to survive and work within the system. Elwood, on the other hand, clings to the idea that if he sticks to his ideals and behaves himself, he will be rewarded. Sadly this proves to be an illusion.

The Nickel Boys is set in the 1960s, and much of the detail of violence, rape and murder is taken directly from the accounts of a group of survivors – the so-called White House Boys – of the Arthur Dozier School, including the beatings with a leather strap lined with sheet metal, and the industrial size fan whose noise in the night masks the terrible sounds emanating from the victims. The school was not finally closed until eight years ago and the novel actually opens with the recent discovery, by a group of archeology students, of over a hundred unmarked graves, found to contain the broken bodies of young boys.

Whitehead makes clear the fact that this systemic racism is simply a legacy of the treatment of slaves and the ongoing abuse of African Americans today. His writing, plain and unadorned, is immensely readable and tells a most gruelling story. This is an immensely important book and should be read by anyone who doubts that racism is still rife in the United States. Whitehead won the Pulitzer Prize for The Underground Railroad, and I’ll be very surprised if this one is not a prizewinner too.

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Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Colson Whitehead, The Nickel Boys (Fleet, 2019). 978-0708899410, 224pp., hardback.

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