The Nickel Boys – Colson Whitehead
Review contributed by Chancellor Dwight C. Watson
Colton Whitehead won a Pulitzer Award for his 2016 book, the Underground Railroad. Whitehead has received the MacArthur Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Writers Award, the Dos Passos Prize, and a fellowship at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers. His latest book the Nickel Boys has been noted as the Time Magazine best fiction book of 2019 and one of the Best Books of the Decade 2010 – 2019. The book also won the National Book Foundation Award, and the Kirkus Prize, and is a finalist for the 2019 National Books Critics Circle Award.
The Nickel Boys dramatizes the Jim Crow era piercing effect, following the lives of two boys sentenced to brutal reform school in 1960s Florida. I was growing up in the South in the 1960s and the threat of reform school was the boogie man that adults would whisper to keep boys in line. Neighborhood bullies and petty thieves were the bad boys that were slated to the juvenile detention center and the ones that the good boys were not to hang around. The nightmares depicted in the Nickel Boys which springs from the harrowing true story of the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in northern Florida is beyond what we imagined as young children. The school opened in 1900 and reigned for more than a century as one of the country’s largest and most notorious homes for abandoned children and those deemed wayward. According to historical accounts and testimonies from survivors, the boys as young as 6 were chained to walls. There were reports of rape, forced labor, solitary confinement. More than 100 children died at the school between 1913 and 1960 (Kiser, 2009).
Whitehead’s capturing of these events mystified and terrified me because the origins of these accounts were so vivid and unimaginable that happened during the time that paralleled my own upbringing. We often talked about the boys that did not return from reform school. We just assumed they moved on to their adult lives. My hope is that they did and their fates were not that of Turner and Elwood, the main characters of the book.
Whitehead captured the varied lives of two boys assigned to the Nickel Academy — the two friends: Elwood, who insists on people’s decency was a straight – A student raised on his grandmother’s conviction that “duty might protect him, as it had protected her.” Elwood is enamored with the message of Martin Luther King Jr. and the beauty and bravery of the civil rights protesters — “how the young men’s ties remained straight black arrows in the whirl of violence.” Even in Nickel Academy, he vows to make the best of it. Turner, who believes in the essential evil in people. Turner was a product of poverty, segregation, homelessness, and abandonment. He viewed incarceration as an opportunity and learned how to navigate the harrowing confines.
The juxtaposition and the interconnectivity of these two lives takes the reader on a journey of discovery, recognition, disbelief, and release. It took me back to my own recollections of not only the reform school threats, but my ingrained teaching of Dr. King, “must walk the streets of life every day with [a] sense of dignity and … somebody-ness.”
I am so fortunate that my cousin gave me a first edition signed copy of this book that I will treasure always. My cousin too knows the truths of the 1960s south and that Black boys were often collateral.
Roger Dean Kiser (2009), The White House Boys – An American Tragedy