Review: The Nickel Boys

This novel, by Colson Whitehead, was one that my son-in-law left for me. It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2020, and i devoured it rather quickly.

 Colson Whitehead was born in 1969 in New York City; his parents owned an executive recruiting firm. As a child growing up in New York City, he decided that he wanted to be a novelist after reading Stephen King’s novels. He matriculated at Harvard University; after he was not accepted into Harvard’s creative writing seminars, he studied English and comparative literature. Upon receiving a B.A. in 1991, he became an editorial assistant at The Village Voice; he wrote music, television, and book reviews and eventually became the newspaper’s television editor.  He has written eight novels, including The Underground Railroad, for which he was awarded he 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. He lives in New York City and Sag Harbor, long Island.

Colson Whitehead

The Nickel Boys is a work of fiction but it is based on the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida, which the author discovered in 2014. It was a reform school operated by the State of Florida from 1900 to 2011. Throughout its 111-year history, the school gained a reputation for abuse, beatings, rapes, torture, and even murder of students by staff. Despite periodic investigations, changes of leadership, and promises to improve, the allegations of cruelty and abuse continued.

The principal character in The Nickel Boys is Elwood Curtis, growing up in the Florida panhandle in the 1960. His parents have deserted him and he is living with his grandmother. He is an idealistic, well behaved boy who does well in school and is preparing to go to college. He is arrested accepting a ride from a car thief and sent to the Nickel Academy, a segregated reform school. There, he meets meets and becomes friends with Turner, a cynic, who cannot understand Elwood’s commitment to Dr Martin Luther Kings instructions to love your oppressor. Trying to intervene in the bullying of a younger boy, Elwood is severely beaten by the school authorities and spends two weeks in the school hospital. The novel lays out in gripping detail what life is like in Nickel. Eventually, Elwood, who has been taking notes of all his experiences, decides to pass them to a state inspector. This leads to an attempted escape by Elwood and Turner which ends tragically.

This novel certainly deserved to win the Pulitzer Prize. It is difficult to set aside, but it is not sensational; it is factual, almost understated, moving on quickly to what happens next. The writing is tight, and the images are sharp. The contrast between Elwood’s and Turner’s attitudes is used to maintain the manageable temperature of the Novel. The school authorities are unembroidered: their action speak for themselves.

The book is a supremely eloquent indictment of man’s inhumanity to man. It leaves us asking ourselves how it can happen to ‘normal’ people. In summary: a great, memorable piece of literature.

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