Multiple questions come to mind while reading The Nickel Boys, the latest from Colson Whitehead, whose 2016 novel The Underground Railroad won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Are we worse now? Have we gotten any better? Are we as bad as we’ve ever been? It sometimes feels difficult to escape the laundry list of hard and ugly truths that are being brought to light by the brave and articulate voices of today, whether we’re being confronted by the raw treatment of the Central Park Five in Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us, or how Sonia Lowman’s Teach Us All shows what work remains to fully desegregate our public schools.
It’s exhausting to think that the problems of yesteryear have yet to be fully solved, and complacency would lull us into the belief that everything is all better now – that issues of race are a matter of ancient history. While it’s scary to think that such denials could be made today, they are indeed made, an admission that makes it all the more necessary to introduce Whitehead’s latest work.
The Nickel Boys tells the insidious story of Nickel Academy during the 1960s, an all-boys reform school in Florida that takes in juvenile delinquents as well as wards of the state. It boasts no prison-style fencing or giant walls with which to keep its “students” (a feel-good term used dubiously in this instance), but instead enjoys a classy veneer leading outsiders to believe a kid should be so lucky to get sent away and be placed in their care. The campus includes dormitories (segregated, naturally), farmland that contributes crops to the local communities, a printing press, and an area where bricks are produced for all the masonry in the surrounding area. Students alternate days of work with days of school, get Sundays off, and can earn early release through a ranking system in which being awarded merits for good behavior elevates your status.
Beneath that veneer, however, lies the harrowing truth of the campus. The teachers don’t teach, the faculty corrupt, students are physically and sexually abused by the staff, and anyone who steps out of line gets a late-night trip to the White House, an old building where an industrial fan muffles the screams of children beat so badly they can’t walk for days. And if the beating happens to lead to death, a body winds up in an unmarked graveyard the students nicknamed “Boot Hill”.
We get to navigate the grounds through the eyes of Elwood Curtis, a young black teenager whose entire life seems to be one great tragedy after another. Raised by his grandmother after his parents abandon him for California, Elwood defies expectations and does his best to go above and beyond his circumstances. He’s educated, works for and helps to improve the local newsstand business, and aims to contribute to the Civil Rights movement, hanging on to every word from Dr. Martin Luther King’s lips. He’s so successful, in fact, that he’s offered early college classes for free.
An ugly fate befalls Elwood, however, when he hitchhikes to his first day of class and is picked up in a stolen vehicle. Defense for young black men in the 60s is non-existent, and by virtue of being in the car, Elwood is an accomplice and sentenced to the Nickel Academy. The establishment of Elwood’s backstory takes several chapters, and it is Whitehead’s opening salvo. He creates such an upstanding young man that we’d all love to be the next Elwood Curtis, and it strikes hard at the reader how much he is made to suffer through an inept justice system. One wonders how many other young black men were sent away without the slightest regard to the facts of their cases, or if it’s even possible to count.
Elwood’s first few days goes as poorly as you’d expect, and he makes an early trip to the White House that puts him in the hospital for weeks. However, this also serves as an initiation of sorts, and when back in his dormitory, the other boys fully accept him as one of theirs, a fellow Nickel Boy. The plot then moves forward, and we get treated to several episodes during Elwood’s time at the school. We’re treated to the institutionalized best friend, Carter, who teaches Elwood how to mind the system, and Jaimie, the odd Mexican cast-out ping-ponged back and forth from the white and black dormitories in a rare bit of comedy as the faculty can’t decide what race he belongs to.
There’s also the story of resident bullies Black Mike and Lonnie, cronies for the big bruiser Griff, whose own story elicits empathy for what amounts to a large lost child. Interspersed throughout these digressions are flashes into the future, where an older Elwood shows us how hard it is to move on from the trauma of his time at the Nickel. Taken together, the story moves very quickly and makes for a tantalizing read, especially down to the bitter end, with heavy emphasis on the word bitter.
For the casual reader, The Nickel Boys might remind them of Frank Darabont’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shawshank Redemption, with Elwood Curtis subbing in for a young black version of Andy Dufresne. His story is certainly just as tragic, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and yet is mystifyingly resilient, focused not just on survival, but on justice as well. Unlike Darabont’s work, however, Whitehead doesn’t give us a Hollywood ending, but something closer to reality, which makes this especially gripping for those readers keeping up with the news.
The Nickel Boys is a work of fiction, but it’s based on the real-life story of Dozier School for Boys, a notorious Florida institute for juveniles that recently made headlines for trying to quietly sell off the defunct school’s property before the discovery of a hidden graveyard. Whitehead has done his research diligently, and the horrors of Dozier can’t be ignored, especially considering the school only recently stopped running in mid-2011.
In truth, The Nickel Academy, as well as its real-life counterpart, aren’t the exception as much as they are the rule. Corruption exists in these institutions, racial-profiling is still a major issue, and more research supports the idea of the aptly named School-to-Prison Pipeline. Moreover, these are fresh wounds reminding readers of the work still yet to be done if we ever want to heal our country and move forward. Colson Whitehead’s latest work moves quickly, deftly, and will open your eyes in ways that you may never be able to claim ignorance again, especially if you research the true stories that serve as inspiration.