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The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

Published by Doubleday on July 16, 2019

The Nickel Boys is set in the 1960s, while Jim Crow was still the rule in the South. Blacks are jailed because of their skin color. They die in jail because of their skin color. They are beaten for wearing a military uniform because of their skin color. They are denied educational opportunities because of their skin color. They get sent to reform school for the offense of homelessness because of their skin color. An atmosphere of fear and injustice permeates the novel.

The story follows Elwood Curtis, who begins the novel as a dishwasher in Tallahassee. Elwood istens to recordings of speeches by Martin Luther King Jr. and looks forward to the day when Dr. Kinng's dream of equal opportunity will come true. In high school, Elwood moves on to a job in a tobacco shop, hoping to save money for college. Dr. King’s admonition that “we must walk the streets of life every day with this sense of dignity” inform the life Elwood is trying to achieve.

Elwood lives with his grandmother, who fears the civil rights movement as much as she appreciates its achievements, including being able to sit wherever she wants on the bus. When Elwood marches with college students to protest a theater that won’t serve black customers, his grandmother worries that he is putting his life at risk. She is “a survivor but the world took her in bites.”

Elwood enrolls in a junior college and seems be walking the streets with a sense of dignity when he hitches a ride with a man who is driving a stolen car. That misfortune sets the scene for the heart of the novel.

Elwood is sent to Nickel Reform School. A prelude, set in the present, explains that archeology students have interred bodies in the Nickel Reform School cemetery that show clear evidence of abuse. Even more troubling are the bodies buried on school property, outside of the cemetery, the unacknowledged dead. The prelude foreshadows a difficult time for Elwood as a Nickel boy.

In his acknowledgements, Colson Whitehead tells the reader that Nickel Reform School is inspired by the story of Florida’s Dozier School for Boys. Whitehead’s fictional account of the Nickel Reform School echoes the horrific reality of Dozier, including the investigation of grave sites.

Like Dozier, the fictional Nickel Reform School separates black and white inmates. Its purpose is to instill docility and obedience. Elwood learns that standing up for the weak against the bullies is likely to lead to a beating by the bullies and another by the staff. Such are the moral values instilled by reform schools.

The novel explains the fate of a boy whose body is disinterred fifty years later. His story is still told by rings screwed into trees in the woods, rings to which boys were shackled before being whipped: “Testifying to anyone who cares to listen.”

Inspired by the teachings of Dr. King and the actions of Rosa Parks, Elwood wants to do his part to encourage nonviolent reform of the evils he sees at Nickel. Will he have the courage? The novel suggests that the unlikeliest people, when oppressed, can find courage. Even fruitless efforts can inspire the kind of dignity that Dr. King deemed essential to the human spirit.

The Nickle Boys is not a feel-good fantasy about a young man who overcomes adversity, although it does acknowledge the possibility of defeating internalized demons. Places like Nickel ­— described as one of hundreds “scattered across the land like pain factories” — existed to break an inmate’s spirt. Opportunities lost might never be regained. With perseverance and luck, an intelligent person can build a life, even achieve a semblance of success, but that life will be shackled to the past. Survivors of institutions are “denied even the simple pleasure of being ordinary.”

This is a short novel, all the fat trimmed away to tell a compact but far-reaching story. The ending comes as a complete surprise. It is a fitting resolution to a captivating novel. Like The Underground Railroad, The Nickel Boys illustrates Colson Whitehead’s ability to personalize the history of injustice. The story is gut-wrenching and emotionally charged. The Nickel Boys reminds readers of how far the nation has come and how much farther it must go to honor its promise of equal justice under the law.


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