Author of The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead brilliantly dramatizes another strand of American history through the story of two boys sentenced to a hellish reform school in 1960s Florida.
Elwood Curtis has taken the words of Dr Martin Luther King to heart: he is as good as anyone. Abandoned by his parents, brought up by his loving, strict and clear-sighted grandmother, Elwood is about to enroll in the local black college. But given the time and the place, one innocent mistake is enough to destroy his future, and so Elwood arrives at The Nickel Academy, which claims to provide ‘physical, intellectual and moral training’ which will equip its inmates to become ‘honorable and honest men’.
In reality, the Nickel Academy is a chamber of horrors, where physical, emotional and sexual abuse is rife, where corrupt officials and tradesmen do a brisk trade in supplies intended for the school, and where any boy who resists is likely to disappear ‘out back’. Stunned to find himself in this vicious environment, Elwood tries to hold on to Dr King’s ringing assertion, ‘Throw us in jail, and we will still love you.’ But Elwood’s fellow inmate and new friend Turner thinks Elwood is naive and worse; the world is crooked, and the only way to survive is to emulate the cruelty and cynicism of their oppressors.
The tension between Elwood’s idealism and Turner’s skepticism leads to a decision which will have decades-long repercussions.
Based on the history of a real reform school in Florida that operated for one hundred and eleven years and warped and destroyed the lives of thousands of children, The Nickel Boys is a devastating, driven narrative by a great American novelist whose work is essential to understanding the current reality of the United States.
The Nickel Boys takes the reader back to 1960s Tallahassee where we meet Elwood Curtis, a young African American student about to enrol in college. He’s a smart and industrious young man, and while he comes across as being a little naïve, it’s clear that he’s a good person who’s prepared to work hard to get where he wants to be. Inspired by the speeches of Martin Luther King, he knows that he is as good as anyone, and he chafes at the ongoing segregation that seems to be about to end. He has a promising future, and it’s frustrating for both him – he doesn’t realise the enormity of events at first, nor the impact it will have on his life – and the reader when he is arrested for stealing a car. It’s very much a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but no one is interested in his story, and he’s sent to the Nickel Academy to be “reformed”.
Even at Nickel, Elwood’s optimism remains. He seems to see this as a temporary blip in his path through life – not ideal, but something from which he will undoubtedly recover. The reader is given a glimpse of his life several years later in New York and knows that it won’t be as straightforward as he thinks. It makes it hard to read about this young man whose life is forever altered – through no fault of his own – particularly in light of the hope that he clings to. His naivety and the desire to do what’s right land in trouble almost immediately, highlighting the true nature of the school. He eventually falls in with fellow
pupil inmate, Turner. I loved the contrast between the two – Elwood’s optimism plays off well against Turner’s cynicism. They’re an interesting pair and can learn a lot from each other, and Turner quickly teaches Elwood a thing or two to help him survive.
Nickel Academy – ostensibly a reform school touting the benefits of a good education, exercise, and hard work – is brutal, and if there are any doubts about the true nature of the place, these are soon dispelled. The school is a microcosm of America at the time, with pupils segregated by the colour of their skin and while neither group has an easy time of it, one of those populations has it worse than the other. Their garments are more on the threadbare side of worn, their facilities more run down, and they have more to prove to get themselves out. Those in charge take advantage of their positions in many ways, selling the food intended for these boys, dishing out horrible corporeal punishments, and abusing those in their care.
The Nickel Boys is a hard read given some of the content, although it’s handled well, with most of it happening “off page”. What is perhaps most harrowing is that it’s based upon the history of a real American reform school. It’s no surprise that such places existed, but knowing that and being made aware of the reality of such places are two very different things. Brilliant yet devastating, this is a novel that will stay with you.