‘The Nickel Boys’ reckons with a legacy of racism and abuse

Colson Whitehead's novel tells a story of two black teenagers in a corrupt reform school and the resilience they mustered in the face of hate. 

Courtesy of Penguin Random House
“The Nickel Boys” by Colson Whitehead, Doubleday, 224 pp.

Author Colson Whitehead set aside another novel he was working on to write a story he felt driven to tell. He was prompted by 2014 news reports of a recently discovered cemetery on the grounds of the Dozier School for Boys, in Marianna, Florida. Whitehead tried to make sense of the horrid disclosures. The outcome of this effort is his latest novel, “The Nickel Boys.”

In the hands of a writer less talented than Whitehead, this might have been a book too difficult to read. But with discernment and integrity, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author shares a compelling story that never crosses over into gratuitous detail. While not avoiding gruesome accounts of the boys’ experiences, Whitehead offers a tale that includes resilience and redemption.

Patterning the news stories, the novel involves a similar discovery at the fictitious Nickel Academy, an institution that had once been charged with providing “physical, intellectual, and moral training” that would enable delinquent boys to grow into “honorable and honest men.” In the prologue, university students excavate unmarked graves to identify the remains, hoping that science will fill in the forgotten history. But science is not equal to this task. Whitehead draws upon art to address this painful chapter.

He begins his story years earlier in Tallahassee, Florida, in the black neighborhood of the segregated city. It focuses on Elwood, a boy abandoned by his parents but taken in by his grandmother. While she keeps him on the straight and narrow, it is impossible to shelter him from the racism of the day as well as the cruel taunting that Elwood receives from those who think he’s a little too proud, a little too eager to better himself.

But Elwood also encounters Mr. Hill, his teacher at Lincoln High School. Mr. Hill begins the school year by having his students mark out the slurs left behind in their textbooks, messages scrawled by white students in the high school across the way, taunts they scribbled before discarding the books. While Brown v. Board of Education might be the law of the land, integration has not yet come to this part of Florida.

What has arrived, though, are the inspiring words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elwood first hears the powerful speeches of the civil rights hero from a phonograph record given to him by his grandmother. Elwood discovers words for the notions he cannot yet express, the belief that he is “as good as anyone else.”

Mr. Hill nurtures this budding confidence and encourages Elwood’s interest in the civil rights movement. He arranges for him to take college classes open to high-achieving high school students. It would appear that Elwood is on his way to fulfilling his dreams.

But then a cruel twist lands him at Nickel Academy. In Jim Crow-era fashion, Nickel is divided into two sections – one reserved for whites, the other set aside for blacks. The contrast between the two illustrates that separate was most definitely not equal. But all the boys are subject to the capriciousness of the staff.

Corruption lies at the core of the institution. The boys are loaned out as free labor, working at the homes of local benefactors. The food provided by the state is sold to local merchants, the profits lining the pockets of the local officials and leaving the boys with meager rations that even the school’s doctor tells them they shouldn’t eat. Worse still is the treatment the boys receive at the hands of the sadistic guards and teachers.

As Elwood is thrust into unimaginable horrors, his optimism and calm demeanor gird him. The words of King, “Throw us in jail and we will still love you,” help muffle the hate that surrounds him. While struggling to survive, he encounters Turner. Turner is the opposite of Elwood. While the two will never be friends, it might be said that they come to respect each other. Together they hatch a plan, one with repercussions that extend decades into the future and present a most unexpected twist in the plot.

“The Nickel Boys” offers a provocative tale as Whitehead bears witness to lives that were forgotten and some, no doubt, that were never noticed. But he brings much more to the novel, infusing it with glimpses of hope that reveal how one person’s efforts, one person’s example can make a difference. And that example needn’t be an international figure. It might just be the kid who, thrown into jail, will still hold on to love.

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