Based on the real story of a reform school in Florida that operated for one hundred and eleven years and warped the lives of thousands of children, The Nickel Boys is a devastating, driven narrative that showcases a great American novelist writing at...
The Nickel Boys is a 2019 novel by American novelist and writer Colson Whitehead.
After dealing with slavery in his sixth novel, The Underground Railroad, Whitehead did not want to write "[...] another heavy book". However, the election of Donald Trump "compelled" him to do so.Whitehead deliberately narrowed the scope of the book and grounded it for the sake of realism, choosing not to include speculative or fantastic elements of his other novels Zone One or The Underground Railroad.
The Nickel Boys is set at a fictionalized version of the Dozier School for Boys, dubbed Nickel Academy. Whitehead first heard of the real life Dozier School on Twitter in 2014. The school opened in 1900 and closed in 2011. The state of Florida ran Dozier as a reform school.After decades of allegations against the school for allowing the beatings, rapes, torture, and even murder of students by guards and employees, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement began an investigation of the claims in 2010, followed by additional investigations by the United States Department of Justice in 2011 and an ongoing forensic investigation by the University of South Florida which began in 2012. The Department of Justice investigation revealed “[...] systemic, egregious, and dangerous practices exacerbated by a lack of accountability and controls.”The University of South Florida investigation discovered some 55 graves on school grounds by December 2012, and has continued to identify potential grave sites as recently as March 2019
Colson Whitehead (born November 6, 1969) is an American novelist. He is the author of six novels, including his debut work, the 1999 novel The Intuitionist, and The Underground Railroad (2016), for which he won the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction and the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. He has also published two books of non-fiction. In 2002, he received a MacArthur Fellowship ("Genius Grant").
Colson Whitehead has a mission to create a fictional space in which the buried stories of America’s racial history can breathe. His previous novel, The Underground Railroad, exhumed the testimonies of former slaves who fled the American south. The novel gave those histories startling imaginative release, taking the metaphor for the network of tunnels and channels by which abolitionists helped escapees rattle north and giving it unforgettable reality. That book was Whitehead’s eighth, but its publication at the juncture between the44th and 45th presidencies gave it urgent significance. It came with pointed endorsement from Barack Obama, won a Pulitzer prize and a National Book award and offered an indelible corrective, if one were needed, to ideas that there had been settled closure to that heinous and often unacknowledged past.
The Nickel Boys, a worthy and singular novel to follow that landmark achievement, begins with literal archaeology. The secret graveyard that stood behind a prison reform school in the Florida of the Jim Crow era has been disturbed by developers building a shopping mall. The bodies of black boys who had been dumped in potato sacks have been unearthed, giving substance to the mythology of the Nickel Academy, a segregated borstal in which children were routinely brutalised and sometimes covertly killed by staff. An endnote to the novel confirms not only the factual truth of the archaeological dig – in 2014 – but also of the institution, the Arthur G Dozier school for boys, in Marianna, Florida, on which all that follows is based.
Whitehead unspools that recent history with a true storyteller’s certainty. Elwood Curtis is a boy, like David Copperfield or Huck Finn, for whom all things seem possible. He is the fourth generation of his family, expected to work in service at the Richmond hotel in Tallahassee, but he has grander plans. Inspired by an LP record of the speeches of Dr Martin Luther King, and by the Freedom Riders and marchers among the teachers and seniors in his high school, he believes he can earn enough from his after-school work at the tobacconists to make college. He pores over Life in the magazine rack and imagines himself a proper part of it. Something falls wrong for him, however, and in the age-old story of southern black boys he is implicated in a crime in which he played no part. He finds himself not at college but in the swamp-surrounded Nickel Academy.
Whitehead’s recreation of this enclosed world, the central section of his novel, is both highly detailed and emotionally exacting. Elwood determines to beat a system designed to beat him; he believes he can test and fulfil one of King’s mantras: “Throw us in jail and we will still love you.” His friendships at Nickel, particularly with Turner, his chief confidant and would-be protector, have a subtle life. Turner “had never met a kid like Elwood before. Sturdy was the word he returned to, even though the Tallahassee boy looked soft… He talked like a white college boy, read books when he didn’t have to, and mined them for uranium to power his own personal A-bomb. Still – sturdy.”
That quality is quickly and severely tested by the sadists who run the academy, who see in Elwood another boy to be broken. The punishment room of the school is called by the name it was called in reality: the White House. You can, as the author notes, find genuine survivors’ stories at a website called officialwhitehouseboys.org; he does all of those recollections justice here, however, by involving you in the banal cruelties of a system that is all too believable. There are respites from fear at Nickel, the boys are sent out to do house-painting for local sponsors, but the narrative of their lives is insistent: “the brand of paint was Dixie, the colour Dixie White”.
Whitehead neither sentimentalises nor exaggerates the tale that emerges. He writes with a clear-eyed calm, letting his characters, particularly Elwood, speak for themselves. I was reminded in reading it of meeting Bryan Stevenson, the fearless advocate for racial justice in the American south, and some of the facts that he laid out for those who would like to believe that stories like Elwood’s are a thing of the past: since 1970, a quarter of a million children have been sent to adult prisons in the US, including 3,000 sentenced to life without parole. A black boy is still five times more likely to be imprisoned during his life than a white boy, and in several states that still means disenfranchisement for life.
Colson Whitehead’s book is not a polemic, but in presenting the unconscionable history of this particular institution, keeping boys in solitary confinement or even burying them “out the back”, he once again builds an allegorical history that resonates in the present.
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