The Nickel Boys
The Nickel Boys tells the story of Elwood Curtis, a Black boy growing up in 1960s Tallahassee, and his unfair sentence to a juvenile reformatory for a crime he did not commit. The novel follows his and his fellow’s students’ experiences at the school as they confront sadistic staff members, heinous punishments and the looming threat of being taken ‘out back’.
Set in the 1960s, The book is centred around themes of incarceration and its equation to modern day slavery. Despite it being called a school and the boys referred to as students, rather than inmates, there is no denying that the Florida Industrial School for Boys is a glorified prison. In many ways it serves as a microcosm for the racism these boys experience in the outside world. At one point Elwood notes that “In here and out there are the same, but in here no one has to act fake anymore.” The staff members use their positions to assert dominance over the boys, knowing that their crimes will go unpunished by the state. Ironically, the name of the torture chamber where boys are taken is called The White House which acts as further evidence for this book’s critique of the justice system and demonstrates how racism is at the core of the American constitution.
In the acknowledgements, Whitehead writes that while The Nickel Boys is a work of fiction, it was inspired by the story of the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida. During the 1950s and 1960s around 300 boys were sent to the reform school and it is thought that 81 boys had died there - their remains buried in the school grounds. I had never heard of this before and I was desperate to know more about this part of history that completely evaded my knowledge. In my research, I found out that Elwood’s character is in part based on the story of Jerry Cooper, now in his 70's, who was sent to the school in 1961. He'd been running away from home and hitchhiking when he was picked up by an AWOL Marine driving a stolen car. He was charged for car theft. Of course, there are huge differences between Jerry and Elwood. The biggest is of course that Elwood is Black and is therefore placed in the campus for Black boys, which offers substantially worse conditions for ‘students’.
A lot of the novel sees Elwood battle with his sense of morality, versus doing what he needs to do to live. While Elwood is in favour of seeking out justice, his Nickel friend, Turner, thinks him naive and instead believes that the only way they can survive is by keeping their heads down and abiding by a system they know is wrong. It is this conflict that leads Elwood to question some of the politics of Martin Luther King. I’m not going to try to debate King’s ideologies against the political moment he was operating in, but here I think it is important to note that King was campaigning at the start of the Civil Rights Movement during the Jim Crow era and therefore had to tread very carefully in his speeches. In one speech, King recites: “Throw us in jail and we will still love you...But be assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves, we will win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory.” Elwood takes issue with having to show love and compassion towards his oppressor, which he believes is an impossible ask from King.
Whitehead has a gift for writing fiction so rich with emotion and historical detail that it comes alive and shakes the reader to attention. If you’re left unchanged after reading The Nickel Boys, you’ve honestly done something wrong. A beautifully written story that is in equal parts horrific and devastating - I’d classify this as an essential read.