In a continuation of our series of micro-reviews, assistant editor Brandon Williams brought together a group of ardent readers to give their quick-hit impressions of recent novels which have won major awards from the literary world. Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys, recently awarded the Pulitzer Prize, is our next selection.
Quick Book Summary (from the official blurb): “When Elwood Curtis, a Black boy growing up in 1960s Tallahassee, is unfairly sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy, he finds himself trapped in a grotesque chamber of horrors. Elwood’s only salvation is his friendship with fellow “delinquent” Turner, which deepens despite Turner’s conviction that Elwood is hopelessly naive, that the world is crooked, and that the only way to survive is to scheme and avoid trouble. As life at the Academy becomes ever more perilous, the tension between Elwood’s ideals and Turner’s skepticism leads to a decision whose repercussions will echo down the decades.”
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead tells the story of Elwood, a young Black man who, in spite of doing everything right, is ordered to spend time at Nickel Academy due to a combination of bad luck and America’s racist justice system. Although The Nickel Boys mostly takes place during the 60s civil rights movement, it is relatable to current times, and serves as an important reminder that the justice system is a biased system, and places like Nickel Academy really did (and still could) exist.
Whitehead’s work is an ideal example of how to effectively characterize both major and minor characters. With over fifty characters introduced, Whitehead either gives the reader entire portions of their background, like Clayton Smith, a legendary Nickel student who escaped from the premises, or just enough detail to assume character traits, like the widow who happily watches Clayton Smith steal clothes off her clothesline. The idea of that many characters and characterizations sounds overbearing, and the argument could be made they’re not all necessarily needed, but Whitehead does it with ease and allows the reader to get to know every character who moves the story forward one way or another.
Starting in Part 3, the book uses the trendy format of switching between the main character’s past and present. The technique, though it slows down the storyline at first, ends up working well because Whitehead carefully releases plot details with a combination of recalled and withheld information. When the two timelines finally come together it leaves the reader shocked. Elwood is still a character the reader hopes succeeds, but after everything they’ve read about Elwood’s journey, he isn’t who they thought he was.
To say Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys is prescient would not do credit to the realities lived and known by Black Americans. Based on the horrific cruelties of the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Florida, the book follows two boys, Elwood and Jack, both sent to the eponymous Nickel Academy, a school ripe with racist abuse. Whitehead uses beautiful, frank language to describe the horrific abuses these boys face. The beatings and torture leveled against Elwood and Jack are difficult enough to read for their content and bluntness, but more horrific still is the way it changes these young boys’ psyches.
Whitehead’s style is calm, matter-of-fact, and beautiful, even as—especially as—he relates the frank realities of being Black in America. That prose never falters, although there are times when the novel feels disinterested in itself, lulling for a short while until it reaches a point of fascination. And, when those points are reached, the writing is more than engrossing. The twists in this novel’s plot feel naturally born from the connection between Elwood and Jack, another, deeper dive into their growth together, and the ripples of their time at the academy, and that, too, is a testament to Whitehead’s ability to craft stories around characters who reflect and embody humanity. The Nickel Boys is a testament to the lasting effects of abuse and racism on Black people, and the lip service paid to Black suffering by America at large. More than that, it is a layered, loving exploration of Elwood and Jack’s truths, the way they affect and grow with each other, and the indelible marks each leaves on the other’s life.
Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys follows Elwood and Turner, two Black boys interred at the Nickel Academy, an institution based on the real-life Dozier School for Boys claiming to turn “bad boys” into “good boys.” The staff members at Nickel are racist and abusive, regularly beating and sexually assaulting the students. The Nickel Boys follows the different ways Elwood and Turner endure Nickel and how they reconcile this part of their lives.
The most engaging beats are where an individual’s optimism is reinforced by moments of unity or dismantled by the absence thereof. Elwood is optimistic and believes the world can become a better place if he fights for what’s right. Turner is cynical and believes the world will never change. The narrative is strongest when the boys adopt parts of each other’s philosophies. When Elwood is abused, then isolated from his grandmother due to her illness, he conforms to the Nickel standards in order to survive. In contrast, Turner comes to admire Elwood’s optimism and strives to be more like him.
The omniscient narration creates a smooth transition from one character’s interiority to another, building on the tension within the boys as they struggle with their respective philosophies. The novel’s structure begins with an older Elwood, then flashes back to his time in Nickel for the bulk of the novel before returning back to the present. This emphasizes the development of the boys’ ideologies in a thoroughly enjoyable way. Whitehead puts these two philosophies at war with each other in the prologue and reconciles them by the epilogue.
The Nickel Boys was published in July 2019 and has only become more relevant since.
Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys relates the twofold struggle of Elwood Curtis. He must first endure Nickel Academy, an extension of and a metaphor for all the oppression and torment that the white race has visited upon the Black race. Then, in his life after, he must find a way to continue after being broken. Whitehead’s prose is matter-of-fact, and he puts distance between his characters and the violence they see and suffer. When Elwood is forced by his trauma to revisit his memories of Nickel, he is exploring a wound, reluctant and pained. The Nickel Boys is a familiar story of pain and loss, of deep injustice, of noble actions that do little, in the end, to change history’s course. It is a tragedy in which the “hero” is just a boy, his “flaw” just pigment.
It is not a new message. While reading, I was struck over and over not by revelation, but by familiarity. After all, as I write, protestors are marching in memory of yet another unarmed and restrained Black man killed by a white cop in no danger. Why shouldn’t Elwood’s story be familiar? The Black struggle for freedom—from slavery, segregation, oppression, injustice, undeserved violence—is a full lifetime older than the United States itself. The book features maybe a dozen or two named characters, but it’s really about millions of people, and centuries. The stories are myriad, and The Nickel Boys is only the latest one. This story has been told. But it clearly still needs to be heard.