Nickel Boys

The Nickel Boys
Colson Whitehead
Reviewed by Phil

 

1960s Florida, the Jim Crow South. For Elwood Curtis, a young, black teenager, it’s the first day of college. He is excited to enroll in the Melvin Giggs Technical, a local school for blacks. He wants to check out the campus, or just sit in the quadrangle and “breathe it in.” He sets off south, thinking he can walk the seven miles if he doesn’t get a lift. His luck is in, it seems: The third car to come along stops for him. But Elwood Curtis is in the wrong place at the wrong time. Moments later, they are pulled over by a white deputy: the car has been reported stolen.

Elwood is sentenced to the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory where the inmates are expected to attend classes and labor in the fields and workshops. This regime constitutes the "physical, intellectual and moral training" the Academy proudly claims as its mission.

On his first night, Elwood intervenes in a fight; a couple of bullies are picking on a smaller boy. Once again, he is in the wrong place at the wrong time. Busted by a white houseman on his nighttime patrol, he is told that “Mr. Spencer will take this up.”

At Nickel, justice is random and arbitrary.

They come at 1am. There’s the sound of tires on gravel, doors slamming. The boys are rounded up and taken off to the White House, known as the Ice Cream Factory by the white inmates because they came out with bruises of every color.

Although based on people and events at the Florida School for Boys in Marianna, Florida, The Nickel Boys is a work of fiction. Whitehead’s prose is hard, the tone unrelenting – a reflection of conditions at Nickel. Yes, there is violence, but it is never gratuitous. It’s just part of the story – a story that needs to be told. This is a timely novel. It is a powerful and compelling read.

 

Colson Whitehead was born in New York City and grew up in Manhattan. After graduating from Harvard, Whitehead worked for The Village Voice, and began writing his first novel, The Intuitionist (1991), which Esquire magazine named the best novel of the year. His 2016 novel, The Underground Railroad, won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for Fiction.

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