Book Review: 'The Nickel Boys'

Jan 16, 2020

On the acknowledgment page to his new novel, “The Nickel Boys,” Colson Whitehead writes that in the summer of 2004, he learned about a 111-year-old reform school in Marianna, Florida – the Dozier School for Boys. It had been the subject of a recent Tampa Bay Times report, following discoveries by students at the University of South Florida of secret gravesites at the school. 

Further investigation turned up testimony of extensive physical, mental and sexual abuse, and flagrant corruption by administrators and their political enablers. Closed only in 2011, the school warehoused blacks and whites, but in segregated facilities that carried on Jim Crow traditions, despite court rulings. Dozier also maintained dark cells and sweatboxes, which violated state laws.

Whitehead’s research led him to a website where survivors of the school’s spirit-breaking torture – the few who could – told their horrendous stories, starting from when they were young children left to fend for themselves – impoverished, lonely, beaten, abandoned. For most of these boys, Dozier was inevitable, a way station toward final despair. If Dozier didn’t do them in, they wished they were dead. 

The literary achievement of “The Nickel Boys,” with its heartbreaking concluding chapters, is how Whitehead uses cross-cutting time structure that goes from 1963 to 2014, and uninflected declarative sentences to explore – and challenge – the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., sometimes by way of abbreviated sentences with subjects lopped off – “Sat where she wanted.” The flatness of the style belies the horror of the subject matter.

Whitehead centers his story on Elwood Curtis, bookish, sensitive, idealistic, hardworking and college-bound, thanks to his maternal grandmother. His head is filled with quotations from Dr. King on suffering and love and the need to trust the “ultimate decency that lived in every human heart.” One day, however, he’s mistakenly caught in a car heist and sent to Nickel Academy, with expectations, nonetheless, that justice will be done. At the school, he meets Turner, a streetwise and cynical orphan who tries to wise him up about the nightmare realities of the place, and of the world. They become friends. They would always be victims, though only Turner knew that.

For a while, after I finished reading “The Nickel Boys,” I kept referring to the book inadvertently as The “Riker” Boys. “Nickel,” “Riker,” they sound close, and for sure the realities between the juvenile lockups are hideously similar. It was just last October when New York State mandated that 16- and 17-year olds incarcerated on Rikers Island in the Bronx, most of them black male adolescents, be sent to a separate detention facility, a move that still did not diminish violence. By then, Whitehead had finished writing “The Nickel Boys,” but though his book is fiction, its substance is based on facts about racism and cruelty in the criminal justice system that deepened in the Civil Rights era.

He’s thought about that a lot. In 2016, in his acceptance speech at the National Book Awards for “The Underground Railroad,” Whitehead replied to a question about the responsibility of writers today. I note the sequence of his answer: “Be kind to everybody. Make Art. Fight the Power.” “The Nickel Boys” is a disturbing book but likely to change the way you look at race relations.

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