Archive for August 2019

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead


A couple of years ago, I was blown away by Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad. That award-winning novel combined the dark history of slavery with fantastical surrealism that completely stunned me. Whitehead cleverly imagined a world where the underground railroad was an actual railroad that carried slaves through a tunnel system under America. Each stop illustrated a different time period of African American oppression. That monumental novel was the kind of read that lingered in the back of my mind and left me wanting more. In The Nickel Boys, Whitehead's latest novel, he forgoes the fantasy of his previous work in favor of historical fiction that stays rooted in the harsh realities of its subject matter.

Elwood Curtis is coming into his own as an upstanding citizen within segregated Tallahassee. He never really knew his parents, but his stern grandmother has ensured he toes the line. He diligently commits to his studies in school and works hard after school as a shopkeep. At night, Elwood plays a record of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking on the hope of equal rights. Emboldened by the words of Dr. King and the no-nonsense guidance of his grandmother, Elwood's future is looking bright. He's even been selected to attend college classes. Unfortunately, Elwood is about to get a grim reminder of how unjust the world can be.

A classic case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time leaves Elwood charged with a crime he didn't commit. Rather than be imprisoned in the traditional sense, Elwood is sent to The Nickel Academy, a school that claims to rehabilitate troubled boys. He tries to make the best of a bad situation. The manicured grounds and meticulously maintained buildings of Nickel shine with the promise of providing the young men with a structured path to reentering society. To Elwood, it seems simple enough.  If you follow the rules and do the time, you will be set free. In reality, Nickel follows the same cruel pattern of corruptness, racism, violence, and torture that was all too common during the Jim Crow era. The bright optimism that permeates Elwood's being is about to be shattered by the malice of racist oppression.

The Nickel Boys sees Colson Whitehead return to many of the themes that were in The Underground Railroad in a way that is decidedly different from that novel. There's no magical railroad to lead Elwood to safety. He's stuck in the agonizing hell of Nickel, and we live every moment of that pain and hopelessness with him. Whitehead based Nickel on the real and equally appalling Dozier School for Boys which only ceased operation back in 2011. Since the closing, mass graves of the abused youth who spent time there have been discovered, adding another ripple to the United State's dark history of racism.

Whitehead deserves much credit for his ability to balance the horrors of Nickel with the youthful antics of the students inhabiting it. Each scene that humanized the boys as normal, relatable kids only made the scenes of unflinching torture all the more harrowing. On a larger scale, Nickel can be seen as a metaphor to the United States itself. From the outside looking in, there's the pristine exterior of promise and hope. It is only in the shadows of the inside that the darker proclivities are revealed. Stories like the one told in The Nickel Boys are essential to understanding American history and the struggles with race and oppression that exist to this day. Through his splendid writing, Colson Whitehead continues to shine his authorial light upon these dark, but fundamental subjects.

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.
(2019, 28)

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