Colson Whitehead’s novel, “The Nickel Boys,” is not the type of book you pick up if you are seriously depressed, or for that matter, in a very happy mood. It is the type of book that like Conrad’s, “Heart of Darkness,” uncovers a horrifying truth that far too many people are unaware of or simply refuse to acknowledge and like Conrad wrote in Lord Jim “It’s extraordinary how we go through life with eyes half shut, with dull ears, with dormant thoughts.” (If it sounds like I am writing a review on Conrad I assure you I am not. Conrad is my favorite author and while mentioning him in relation to Mr. Whitehead’s novel I am giving Mr. Whitehouse the highest praise I could write about a writer).
“The Nickel Boys,” is based loosely on Ben Montgomery’s reporting for the Tampa Bay Times on the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida.
The main character is Elwood Curtis, a young black, talented, educated teenage boy who lives with his grandmother after his mother and father left Tallahassee and Elwood, and moved to California in the 1960’s. His future is bright and he has just been accepted at a highly acclaimed school, but like so many black teenagers he is arrested unfairly and sent to juvenile reformatory called the ‘The Nickel Academy.’
The Academy is the worse nightmare that one could impose on a teenager. The men in charged are racist, mean-spirited, cruel, and in short, run a chamber of horrors. Elwood survives by reciting quotes to himself from Martin Luther King, and reading anything he can get his hands on. He is not the type to cause trouble and he forms a relationship with another boy, Turner, who thinks Elwood is naive and doesn’t see the world for how crooked it really is, yet despite this they do look out for each other and their bond is strong.
Elwood, despite being a quiet and obeying student, is nevertheless tortured by his white superiors in charge and is left with scares on his legs that are grotesque and mind altering.
It is the ramifications from this type of cruelty, that lead Elwood and Turner down a path that is both riveting and terrifying and takes the reader on a journey of discovery … that there are two Americans, especially in the south right up through the 1970’s: one for the privileged whites and one for the lowly blacks and how that discrimination is passed down from one generation to another.
This is a great book, and I want to thank my friend Lorna for recommending the works of Colson Whitehead to me. This is certainly not the last book I will be reading by this author.