The Nickel Boys

Written by Colson Whitehead
Review by Sherry Jones

The incomparable Colson Whitehead follows his Pulitzer-Prize-winning The Underground Railroad with a tale that is much different and yet, sadly, much the same.

At the cusp of the Civil Rights movement, Elwood Curtis, scholarship in hand, is on his way to enroll in his town’s black college when he runs into trouble. Unjustly arrested and convicted, he is sent to the Nickel Academy, a segregated reform school led by a sick, sadistic headmaster where black boys are routinely tortured and even killed.

From the start, the ethical, Dr.-Martin-Luther-King-loving Elwood manages to keep his wits and make a few friends, among them Turner, whose savvy and cunning ways help Elwood to enjoy a relatively easy existence at the school. Secretly, though, Elwood is taking notes on everything he sees, hears, and experiences, including his own severe beating from the headmaster that leaves him permanently disfigured.

Like Chekov’s gun that can’t appear in a story without later going off, Elwood’s list of infractions and abuses will certainly bring trouble. Whitehead’s concise, fast-paced tale kept me turning the pages, entranced, terrified of what might happen next but unable to look away, and left me ruminating on the timeliness of the book’s themes.

How little has changed since the early 1960s. The dominant white culture dehumanizes people of color now as then. Dr. King’s declarations of love in the face of hatred, inspiring to Elwood at first but then, as a Nickel boy, striking him as futile and puzzling, seem almost naïve in the context of secret graveyards, Black Lives Matter, and immigrant concentration camps. And in showing us Elwood’s life decades after leaving the “school,” working at a manual job and deprived of the education he had coveted, we see the opportunities stolen from people of color in our society, and may be more able to fully grasp the hows and whys of institutionalized poverty. Highly recommended.