“Nickel Boys” written by Colson Whitehead is an emotional, gut wrenching book based on the real life events which took place in a Florida reform school over the course of decades. This book serves as an in your face reminder of the seeds of racism and violence against our society’s most vulnerable that unfortunately happened (and happens) with little impedance.
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
To call this book a hard read for me would be an understatement. As a reader, I tend to embed myself in the emotions and feelings of the characters of the book. It helps me “feel” the sentiments the author is trying to convey and I enjoy books that do this well. Authors like Bernice L. McFadden (Read my review of Sugar) and Colson Whitehead just happen to be masters at this.
From beginning to end the storytelling was fantastic. It moved fluidly from character to character mostly centering in on Elwood, an unfortunate casualty of the racist, Jim Crow culture that supported the subject school: Nickel Academy. The way he described the academy itself gave life and spirit to lifeless buildings and landscapes. And because of this readers will run the gamut of emotions like I did: anger, sympathy, joy, disgust, hope, among others.
The racist themes in the book are logical but nonetheless frustrating. Readers will have to read through page after page of police discrimination, brutal beatings and downright infuriating racist behavior to juveniles. The book details everything!…and it should. The goal of the book wasn’t to slap a romance on a tragedy. It was to descriptively illustrate the human crimes that were done to the students before, during and after their time at Nickel Academy.
There is one point worth mentioning about the book that was small but massively important. The concept of willful ignorance on the part of all of the citizens who surrounded or were connected to the institution. The state officials, local business people, police and many others turned a blind eye to or even worse profited off the activity at Nickel and this allowed their activity to go on for decades. This theme unfortunately applies to the current United States as well especially as we look at the brutal murders of George Floyd, most recently, Sandra Bland and Eric Garner. The book summarized the thought like this:
“If everyone looked the other way, then everybody was in on it. If he looked the other way, he was as implicated as the rest. That’s how he saw it, how he’d always seen things.”
This book is amazing and I recommend this book for all. I wish stories like this never existed but Colson in this case was not pulling from an imaginary story line. This nightmare is real life.
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