“The Nickel Boys,” Colson Whitehead’s latest novel, is a historic, fictionalized reinterpretation of a defunct reform school, The Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida. In this retelling, we meet Elwood Curtis, a young black boy raised by his grandmother and deeply influenced by a record of a Martin Luther King Jr. speech that he listened to many times during the dawning of the civil rights era. As he matures and has hopes of attending college, those hopes are dashed when Elwood is wrongly sentenced to serve time at The Nickel School, a facility where boys sometimes disappear in the night and end up at “The White House” or “Lover’s Lane” and endure unspeakable abuse. Some boys never return at all. They end up buried anonymously in unmarked earth on Boot Hill.
The novel begins by revealing remnants of this abuse decades later. As historians excavate the long-closed site of the school, the survivors, now adult men, look back at the trauma of their time at The Nickel School and how it impacted them.
Whitehead depicts the 1960s with a third-person narrator dropping in and out of characters’ heads. We not only get to know Elwood, but also his grandmother Harriet Johnson, his first boss, Mr. Marconi, and Mr. Hill, his high school teacher, who is involved with the civil rights movement. As Elwood becomes intellectually engaged, Mr. Hill encourages him to take a college course in a special program. While hitchhiking to get to his first day of class, we see how Elwood’s moral convictions and intellectual appetite lead to his fateful time at The Nickel School and his befriending of a number of boys, including Turner, another boy who does his best to evade the beatings and get out of The Nickel School as soon as possible.
The novel works well shifting between the past and Elwood’s future self in New York City, but it also makes strong parallels with how race is tied to prisons, not just historically, but as a precedent for impacting black communities by fracturing families, incurring trauma on emotional, physical and mental levels, and diminishing the capacity to grow economically and education-wise well into the future. This book also functions as a grim coming-of-age novel where the boys not only encounter race, but how difficult it is to cultivate a sense of masculinity in a country that wants to make them less than adults, much less men. Through future Elwood, we see how difficult that is as he finally tells the entire story to his partner Millie, and how he begins to grapple with the past as he plans a trip back to Tallahassee. In this compelling, brief novel, Whitehead tells a timely, but sadly familiar story that tenderly humanizes young people, many unjustly discarded like a nickel dropped in the street.
The Nickel Boys
By Colson Whitehead
Doubleday, 214 pages
Tara Betts is the author of “Break the Habit” and “Arc & Hue.” Her interviews and features have appeared in publications such as Hello Giggles, Mosaic Magazine, NYLON, The Source, Sixty Inches from Center, and Poetry magazine. She also hosts author chats at the Seminary Co-Op bookstores in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood.