The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead (2019) – Fiction
While labeled fiction, this story is only about fictionalized character. It is not about a fictionalized place. The Nickel School, where main characters Elwood and Turner have been sent to be “reformed” is based on an actual school that existed and operated in Marianna, Florida for over 100 years. You can read the Tampa Bay Times article that brought the atrocities of the school into the public — too many years after hundreds of boys were lost in the dark.
The Nickel School is based on the Dozier Florida School for the Boys. Boys as young as 5 and as old as 20 were sent to Dozier — for serious crimes, other times for minor infractions. Sometimes, because they had no where else to go, they became wards of the state and were sent to the school. Some never left. A university archeology team was tasked to unearth a mass grave of victims that were left behind when the school finally closed.
The Nickel Boys chronicles the path of Elwood, a young African-American man sent to the school for reform. The time period revolves around the 1950s and 1960s and Elwood is inspired and invigorated by the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. Elwood is in high school but is accepted to the local college to start taking some classes. During his walk to the college, he hitchhikes. Unbeknownst to Elwood, the driver is driving a stolen car and when the policeman pulls up, he doesn’t bother to ask where Elwood is going.
Elwood is sent to Nickel and quickly realizes this isn’t a school. This place isn’t here to reform anybody or to teach anybody anything, other than to teach them how cruel the world can be and how cruel man can be. The school houses both black and white boys and both are victimized. However, the black young men deal with both hate and racism.
Elwood soon experiences the pain of the “White House.” A nondescript building that all know is a place of pain and torture. Because Elwood attempted to stand-up for someone being bullied, he is whipped in the White House with a large belt until he passes out.
Watch and think and plan. Let the world be a mob — Elwood will walk through it. They might curse and spit and strike him, but he’d make it though to the other side. Bloodied and tired, but he’d make it through.
These scenes in the White House are haunting. Whitehead writes them as small chapters, only filling a page or two – but the scenes stick with you throughout the entire novel.
Elwood attempts to emulate Dr. King’s message, to not raise his fist, to not give in to his tormentors and his oppressors. Turner, Elwood’s only true friend in Nickel, shows Elwood the ropes and gets him a good task of working alongside him during the days. Turner is dumbfounded by Elwood’s sturdiness, his desire to remain optimistic, and his belief that Nickel will not beat him down entirely.
Whitehead is an accomplished author, who won the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction and the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his novel The Underground Railroad. His writing is crisp and swiftly moves the reader through the novel, hoping that Elwood and his spirit can prevail.
While the book flashes forward occasionally to the future where some characters are able to find a sense of stability in their lives, the reader still knows the struggles that African-Americans endure. The mistreatment and racism is not over when any of the boys get out of Nickel, but it ends on a hopeful note. People endure and people can overcome hate. We root for Elwood to not lose himself and to continue to believe that the world can be better.
“The boys could have been many things had they not been ruined by that place. Doctors who cure disease or perform brain surgery, inventing shit that saves lives. Run for president. All those geniuses— sure not all of them were geniuses, Chickie Pete for example was not solving special relativity—but they had been denied even the simple pleasure of being ordinary. Hobbled and handicapped before the race even began, forever figuring out how to be normal.”
Lover of the written word.