Books Read in 2021 – 4. The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

Genre: African-American, Masculinity, Historical Fiction

Narrative Style: Third person Omniscient Narrator. Moves between 1960s and 2010s.

Rating: 5/5

Published: 2019

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Archeologists find a secret graveyard behind an old reform school. They soon realise that they have the bones of many boys. The story then moves to tell the story of Elwood Curtis, a boy who is sent to the Nickel School for Boys for the sheer bad luck of hitchhiking and being picked up by a black man in a stolen pick up. Life for all boys at Nickel is hard but it is considerably worse for the black boys as Elwood is soon to discover.

Time on shelf: Another fairly recent purchase. As lockdown has seen me unable to potter around second hand book shops like I would normally do, I’ve been getting my book buying kicks from Amazon for my kindle. This has seen me buy a lot more recent novels than I would normally.

This is a raw angry book that never lets up. The prose is pared down and details are given in an almost factual manner. It is a tragic story but also one of hope as we are given some post-Nickel story for one of the boys. It isn’t merely an account of the abuses that Elwood and the boys face at Nickel but is also about why it seems that for all the progress made, we are still seeing horrific racist abuses on the news today.

The novel begins with the modern day archeologists finding the secret graveyard at the back of Nickel Academy, a reform school in Florida. This is based on the finds at the Dozier School for Boys n 2014, also in Florida. The fatality count from the digs at Dozier has reached eighty but could easily be much much higher. While this is clearly horrific, Whitehead gives the tragedy a very human face.

The action then moves to the life of Elwood Curtis, in Jim Crow era Florida. Elwood is a serious, sensible boy who listens to Martin Luther King’s speeches and works in the kitchen at the same hotel as his grandmother. There seems to be a gap between what King says in his speeches and what Elwood feels in his life. His parents left him with her when he was six. It is the small details of Elwood’s history that are particularly painful. One of his grandfathers died in jail after a white women accused him of not getting out of the way on the street, the other was killed in a bar brawl with some white men over who was next on the pool table. His father had been in the army but when he came home, he found white men lynching black men in uniform so he and Elwood’s mother runaway, leaving Elwood without a word. Because these details are passed on in such a matter of fact way, you know that these are not facts that are unique to Elwood’s life but common to many.

Elwood is aiming high. He starts to go to protests, inspired by a new teacher at his high school. He works in a neighbourhood shop but refuses to let other boys shoplift. (This earns him a beating.) On the morning he is arrested, he is trying to make his way to college where it has been arranged that he will take some classes. He waits for a black driver and is sat in the passenger seat when the police stop them for being in a stolen car.

The rest of the novel deals with the brutality of Nickel. The school is terrible to all the boys but the black boys fair worse than the white. So many of them, like Elwood, have no parents, there is no one to care should they disappear. Elwood learns early on the horrors of perceived disobedience when he is taken to the Ice Cream Factory and beaten brutally. This is what keeps the boys in line – the threat of violence. There is also sexual abuse. Whitehead doesn’t go into details. He doesn’t need to. The mention of Lover’s Lane is horror enough.

And there are deaths and disappearances, for example when one of the boys, Griff,, the champion of the black dorms, put up to fight against the best white boy. He is asked to take a fall in the third by the supervisor who has bet on the match. When he doesn’t – he claimed to have muddled what round it was – he quickly disappeared. Supposedly he has run away but, of course, we know this is not the turth. Griff has been a bully, an unpleasant character but no one deserves his fate.

One of the things that Whitehead portrays very well is the friendships that develop between some of the boys – particularly between Elwood and Turner who get to do some work off the grounds – usually labouring in various ways for important white people, presumably to keep them on side so they don’t investigate Nickel too closely. The friendship with Turner is the one positive thing to come out of Nickel.

We are also given Elwood’s life in the future. He has managed to set up his own business. He is doing well – within a certain definition of doing well. But he can’t quite move beyond Nickel in his mind. And having your own removal company comes nowhere near the future that Elwood should have had. Through this, Whitehead shows us the continuing effect of trauma and the way it stops lives in their tracks.

At the end of the novel, Elwood finally agrees to meet with other Nickel boys, something he has always refused to do. He has things he needs to tell, and there are some twists which I don’t want to reveal but which I would never have seen coming. Like the bodies being removed from the ground, Elwood needs to bring some things out into the open from the deeper reaches of his mind. Similarly, Whitehead suggests, we as a society need to look at these traumatic events head on and deal with them. Maybe then we can stop repeated these terrible, traumatic patterns.

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