Most people have no idea what it is like to write two stunning novels in a row. Most folks aren’t sure what dredging up one is like.
But Colson Whitehead does.
“The Nickel Boys,” much like Whitehead's Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning novel “The Underground Railroad," has its roots in a real-life, racist horror. And like “The Underground Railroad,” this is a story about slavery under the auspices of “education.”
In 2014, the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times) published a story about the discovered remains of more than 100 students who had been raped, tortured and killed at the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Fla., over scores of years.
Whitehead fictionalizes this hideous place as the Nickel Academy, which we encounter in the prologue as not only a near-haunted place (“Even in death, the boys were trouble”) but also an inconvenience to developers. Not all the boys died, of course. Some lived to a ripe old age, remembering full well the horrors they endured. As the media circles around the discovery of what is essentially a mass grave, survivors — “the White House boys,” they call themselves, after the whitewashed shack at Nickel where they were tortured by guards — are suddenly receiving much more attention than they are used to.
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Elwood Curtis does everything right. His parents might have abandoned him (they split for California after Florida’s racism all but crushed them), but his grandmother, who cleans rooms in a Tallahassee hotel, has kept him out of trouble.
Elwood worships Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and memorizes his speeches from the 1962 recording “Martin Luther King at Zion Hill.” He excels in school, scratching out the racist invective scrawled into the used textbooks by white students, and is getting ready to take classes at the local technical college. He works solid after-school jobs, reads Life magazine for a glimpse at the world beyond his borders. He toes the line. He is well on his way to living the least restrictive life he can manage.
And then it all falls apart. He thumbs a ride with the wrong person, is blamed for something he didn’t do and is sent to the Nickel, a slice of unshirted hell that the 21st-century residents of the state long to bulldoze.
In the double-speak of the carceral state, the Nickel isn’t billed as a prison. It is a reform school, albeit one where “all the violent offenders were on staff.” The school houses black and white "students," but whatever the white boys are going through, the black boys have it worse.
There’s inedible food, flesh-and-soul-destroying beatings in the White House and rapes by older boys who commit the acts they have learned from others. There’s punishment “out back,” which usually leads to death, and a black-versus-white boxing match with an appropriately heart-crushing conclusion.
Here, Elwood meets Turner, a fellow inmate who sees Elwood's faith in hope itself to be misplaced and mistaken. Turner is not wrong — the longer Elwood stays in the Nickel, the more destroyed he becomes.
There is no rescue, no reform and, in spite of Elwood’s best efforts, no justice. There are only victims. All of those who survived were “hobbled and handicapped before the race even began, never figuring out how to be normal."
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Whitehead jumps back and forth in time in several spots, offering the promise of a life beyond Nickel’s walls only to crush the reader in the novel’s final volley. Childhood abuse, especially under the shadow of white supremacy, does lasting damage to the inmates at the Nickel. Why should the reader be let off?
One can view “The Nickel Boys” as a look at America’s past. Of course, that would be a mistake. In 2019, American racism has become emboldened to show its cancerous face in public in ways that seemed impossible (for white folks only, perhaps) to imagine 20 years ago.
As Elwood reflects on “an impossible thing” that is nonviolence and long-term optimism as practiced by Dr. King, the reader reflects on our current situation: To what extent does the effectiveness of nonviolence demand your enemy have a conscience? When your opponent is determined to keep in place a system that refuses to acknowledge you are human, what is the response most congruent with justice? If justice for the dead is impossible, then acknowledgment of the historical sin might be the best we can do.
Which, of course, demands we acknowledge the current system that must be dismantled. With “The Nickel Boys,” Whitehead has again written an exceptional historical novel crucial to our moment.