“The Nickel Boys” by Colson Whitehead was excellent. It is tragic. It is painful. It is a story that seems to resurface over and over in places like “Nickel,” a state-run “reform” school in Florida for troubled boys, black and white, with too little family, who’ve made mistakes, or are targeted for “correction” by law enforcement. While the story, its characters, and the facility is fictional, the novel is inspired by the real-life Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida, that opened in 1900 and was finally shut down in 2011. The Dozier School had a reputation for abuse, beatings, rapes, torture, and even murder of students by staff.
Elwood Curtis is a young man with a sharp mind destined for great things. He loves listening to records of Martin Luther King Jr speeches and reads a single volume of an encyclopedia left behind by a traveling salesman at the hotel where Elwood works as a dishwasher. As his high school years are coming to a close, Elwood finds out that a new local black college nearby is opening and accepting Freshman students in the Fall. They are offering free tuition for the first year as they start to get their name out in the community.
However, on the fateful drive to school, unbeknownst to Elwood, his friend, the driver stole the car they are traveling in and Elwood becomes an accomplice to grand theft auto. An unfortunate incident that forever changes his life.
The story mainly centers around Elwood’s new life in The Nickel Academy. Education in the school is a joke. The main value at Nickel is compliance. Obeying the unwritten rules of doing what you are told, not raising any questions, and looking the other way when some nefarious acts are committed all around the academy, both with the leaders at the school and the boys who are kept there.
Whitehead uses a stream-of-consciousness technique switching between the past during Elwood’s time at Nickel and the present of his life today, which is still impacted by those days at that place decades later.
This is a powerful dramatization of schools similar to Dozier to flourished in the 20th century amid racial conflict, segregation, and the Jim Crow-era. It was characteristic of men of power who preyed on the weak and helpless to further their own agenda and increase their “kingdoms.” It was a place where all were complicit either as the perpetrators or as those who omitted their personal responsibility to stand up against evil and injustice, and were propped up by societal structures and sentiments against dangerous young boys.
This was an excellent book that I will read again (and again). It is a powerful that demands we confront the dark past of places like Dozier and screams for justice to be served by these evil men involved.