Title: The Nickel Boys
Author: Colson Whitehead
Publisher: DoubleDay Canada
Publication Date: July 16, 2019
Synopsis from Goodreads:
Abandoned by his parents, but kept on the straight and narrow by his grandmother, Elwood is about to enroll in the local black college. But for a black boy in the Jim Crow South in the early 1960s, one innocent mistake is enough to destroy the future. Elwood is sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called The Nickel Academy, a grotesque chamber of horrors, where the sadistic staff beats and sexually abuses the students, corrupt officials and locals steal food and supplies, and any boy who resists is likely to disappear “out back.” Formed in the crucible of the evils Jim Crow wrought, the boys’ fates will be determined by what they endured at The Nickel Academy.
As you might expect from the description, The Nickel Boys is a very heavy and sad story that is rooted in truth. Based on a true story of a reform school in Florida, it follows Elwood, an ambitious, industrious, hard-working, intelligent young man with the world as open in front of him as it can be for someone who is black in America in the early 1960s. Set to go to school and with the support of his grandmother and local community, he sets off for his new life. A wrong turn of events lands him in the hands of law enforcement and a permanent spot at The Nickel Academy. There are only a few ways out: you run away (an impossible feat), you age out at eighteen, or you manage to work your way through the merit system for early release. There is one additional alternative, and that is, you don’t make it out at all.
At The Nickel Academy, boys bear the scars of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Some, like Elwood, landed there by happenstance or unfortunate circumstances. Others, already criminals in their youth, landed there because they did not abide by the law. Either way, it doesn’t take much time to strip these boys of the youth and innocence afforded to them in the world outside. The school is divided by colour: the black boys housed and taught separate from the white boys. We don’t see much of the white boys’ perspective, but we know they do not face quite the same terrible treatment. The system is rooted in bigotry and racism.
For those concerned about the difficult topics of this book, they are not handled in a graphic way, but that doesn’t make it any less impactful. The trauma is mentioned and implied, but is not dwelled upon in great detail. There is enough for it to understood and absorbed–to make it’s point–but is not the primary focus of the plot. Instead the book explores Elwood’s own internal monologue and his relationships with the people and the world around him. It exposes the experience of The Nickel Academy as a whole and from two perspectives: a first-person experience of Elwood as he lives it, and the future experience of those in roughly our current time trying to understand the secret devastations that occurred in the past.
This book is raw and does not shy away from the truth. Whitehead is a talented and evocative writer and brings this emotional story to readers in a moving and honest manner. Highly recommend!