Book review: The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
The latest book from the Pulitzer Prize award-winning author Colson Whitehead tackles what could be seen as a difficult subject; the question of historical abuse directed against youths in 'correctional institutions', but The Nickel Boys is by no means as grim and horrific as it sounds, and it takes in so much more than that. It also deals with historical race inequality but there are a few other qualities to the writing that make this a rather more inspiring and powerful piece of writing than it might sound.
It helps that Whitehead chooses a strong central character to carry us through those times of racial segregation and inequality, which it is shocking to realise is not so long ago but still being practiced in the 60s and 70s. A young 14 year old boy in Frenchtown, Tallahassee, Elwood Curtis however has been inspired by a recording of speeches made by Martin Luther King, and he can see that a change is coming for black folk. That's part of the reason why he decides he won't get stuck like his parents washing dishes for the rich white folk who are the only permitted residents at the Richmond hotel.
Elwood gets work in a tobacco store and his pleasant manner with customers and his honesty earns the respect of the proprietor Mr Marconi and works hard to get himself into college. It's a small step, an individual achievement, but Elwood knows that it's going to take a lot more to move things forward for other black people before they are given equal treatment and opportunities, and he takes part in protests and boycotts. On his way to start college however, Elwood unwittingly takes a lift in a stolen car, is picked up by police and sent to Nickel Academy, a reform school for underage boys. He's about to discover just how badly the system looks upon others of his race and background.
Elwood's 'uppity' attitude towards fairness and equality doesn't do him any favours in a place like Nickel, which is far from an academy. Children as young as five have been sent there for minor misdemeanors, put to unpaid labour that - alongside the misappropriation of food and supplies for the boys - makes a healthy profit for those running the school. Inevitably the punishments are brutal in the institution, and some of the boys never leave, supposedly 'run away' but in reality their remains are discovered years later in unmarked graves on 'Boot Hill' and in other hidden places.
Whitehead's writing doesn't dwell as others might on the injustice, the mistreatment, the abuse and the punishments, but takes the perspective of Elwood, where it's the knowledge and talk of what goes on that is truly terrifying. And perhaps not even just that, but it's the expectation - not acceptance, but expectation - that abuse, bigotry and just plain spite is just a flavour of what a young person of black origin has to endure for the rest of their lives. As Colson puts it: "Let the world be a mob - Elwood will walk through it. They might curse and spit and strike him, but he'd make it through to the other side. Bloodied and tired, but he'd make it through". And one way or another, he does.
The Nickel Boys is fiction, but it is clearly very much based on reality, taking inspiration from the scandal and testimony of residents of a real-life institution, the Dozier School Boys in Marianna, Florida. It's a powerful piece of writing from Colson Whitehead, knowing not to dwell on the distasteful horror of the institution, but choosing to focus on the inner strength, determination and spirit of defiance of the work's lead character. Just as important to today, where the issues raised here are not just historical but still ingrained into everyday American life, it reminds us how things were changed, by biting down on rage and channeling it into something more positive, or simply just by maintaining the will and determination to provide that testimony by surviving.