The perfect novel.
This is my second Colson Whitehead novel (the first being The Underground Railroad, which I didn’t love, but also didn’t hate – you can read my review here) and it just blew me away. I finished this book and, as I usually do when I finish books, sat in silence to digest the words. Usually I find something to nitpick, but this time I felt totally at peace. Weird, considering this isn’t a happy book by any means, but it was so perfectly crafted that sad plot line aside… I seriously enjoyed it. The Nickel Boys is a fantastic read. I don’t have a rating system for books here, but if I did The Nickel Boys, would get five stars… or books? seashells? nerd glasses? See, this is why I don’t use a rating system.
Set in Jim Crow era Florida, The Nickel Boys follows black teenager Elwood Curtis, studious, full of morale, full of potential. Though raised in a poor black neighborhood, attending a segregated high school as if Brown vs. Board never happened, Elwood is optimistic that one day he will live in a world that treats him who for he is and not what it thinks his skin color says about him. Elwood is greatly inspired by the actions of college students participating in the Civil Rights Movement and, of course, the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which he holds dearly in his heart. He participates in protests, listens to Dr. King’s speeches, and develops a relationship with a teacher who partook in demonstrations. Though a high school student, Elwood is about to begin taking college classes when unknowingly hitchhiking a ride in a stolen Packard lands him in The Nickel Academy for Boys, a hellish reform school where terror knows no bounds, effectively throwing whatever life plans Elwood may have had in the wind.
Based on an actual Florida reform school where bodies of students were found on the grounds, The Nickel Academy truly is a nightmare. The smallest infractions can lead to vicious beatings, the boys are denied access to the most basic necessities like toothpaste, and enough trouble can earn a boy a trip “out back” where the secret graveyard behind the school welcomes a new inhabitant. During his time there, Elwood gains a new friend, Turner, who acts as Elwood’s Nickel Academy guide. Turner explains how the school is run, advises Elwood to keep his head down and serve his time, and provides Elwood with comfort. Harsh and cynical as he may be, Turner is the bit of light Elwood needs to survive Nickel, but there’s only so much a friend can do in a place like that.
“This is out back,” Turner said. “Once in a while they take a black boy here and shackle him up to those. Arms spread out. Then they get a horse whip and tear him up.”The Nickel Boys, 2019
The main reason I have nothing but praise for this book, poignant as it is, is Whitehead’s writing. It’s concise, and I think that’s exactly the way a story like this needs to be told. He doesn’t dawdle on the mistreatment of the boys or the deplorable surroundings they find themselves in. Whitehead paints a pretty clear picture early on that Nickel is terrible, and that’s that. No lengthy paragraphs, no trains of thought, no real description other than “bad” (paraphrasing, of course). Usually, lack of description of characters and settings irks me, but I think Whitehead effectively tells Elwood and Turner’s story while being brief. And that just worked for me. We don’t even know much about how the boys look: Elwood wears glasses and Turner has a nicked ear like a stray cat. Both are black boys. In any other book that would have irked the living crap out of me; with such little detail Elwood could look like literally any black boy on the street… *insert lightbulb* Could that not be the point of telling this story? That even though chronologically we may be far removed from times like this, that societal attitudes towards black people and black men means something like this could happen to anyone? It’s a thinker (not really, we know the answer).
Lightbulb moment aside, I just appreciate a writer who knows when to get to the point. If this book were four hundred pages and we were given just as few details I’d be annoyed, but at a little over 200 there’s the perfect balance of detail and plot.
The Nickel Boys is one of those reads that further exposes something I know all too well but often struggle to come to terms with the gravity of: America’s historic and current disdain for black people. Given our history in this country it’s obvious that black Americans are not valued. It’s a reality I and every other black person in this country has to deal with every single exhausting day. Even centuries after the end of chattel slavery, it’s still so real and possible that millions of black people wind up in situations that eerily mirror the days of enslavement. I will always appreciate a bit of reading that exposes more of America’s injustices towards black Americans. For me, that kind of reading does two things: helps me understand that while we have come a long way there is still much left to be done, and reinforces a sense of pride in myself as a black American. That even after facing the most heinous injustices we continue to thrive and strive for a future where one day we won’t have to keep striving. When that day will come is impossible to know, but until it does I’ll keep keeping on.
While this novel wasn’t happy, with a twist ending I am *still* reeling from, it quickly worked its way into my heart as a new favorite read. I cannot stress how much I enjoyed it. I’d love to see it adapted into a film some day; I’m just one of those people who, for some odd reason, enjoys the occasional tragic story. The Nickel Boys fits right into the unintentional theme of my summer reading: prison. Fun, right? I honestly didn’t mean for much of my entertainment for the past few months to revolve around prison, but between When They See Us, The Central Park Five, Orange Is the New Black, and now The Nickel Boys, a lot of content I’ve consumed this summer has revolved around incarcerated folks, most of them black people or people of color. Most of them for minor offenses or just because of prejudice in the justice system.
The New Yorker published a chapter of The Nickel Boys, which you can read and listen to here if you need a little more to convince you to pick it up. This was my personal favorite chapter in the book; I had to put it down for a few hours after reading it to properly take in the insanity of it all.
If my opinion means anything, which it should because my opinion is basically fact, The Nickel Boys is a great read, and one that continues important conversations about the many ways in which this country has mistreated its citizens.