Book Review: 'The Nickel Boys'

Sep 16, 2019

“Even in death the boys were trouble.”

From its opening line, Colson Whitehead’s new novel, “The Nickel Boys,” vividly tells the story of a spot in the Florida panhandle where construction crews unearthed a brutal history. 

The novel draws its power from the nightmarish real-life tale of the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, a reform school that operated for more than a century and gained a reputation for cruelty and abuse. In 2009, the St. Petersburg Times published a series about the school that revealed a long history of rapes, torture and unexplained deaths.

Whitehead’s novel imagines the lives of two boys struggling to survive the reform school. Elwood is a law-abiding, idealistic teenager who reads encyclopedias and listens to sermons by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. After accepting a ride in what turns out to be a stolen car, he is sentenced to the Nickel Academy, where he befriends the street-wise Turner, who thinks Elwood is dangerously naïve and that the only way to survive is to scheme and avoid trouble.

“The key to in here is the same as surviving out there,” Turner says. “You got to see how people act, and then you got to figure out how to get around them like an obstacle course.”

Elwood’s hopeful nature and his faith in King’s commitment to non-violence come up against horrific treatment at the reformatory. He recalls the civil rights leader’s words – “Do to us what you will and we will still love you” – and shakes his head. “What a thing to ask,” Elwood comes to believe. “What an impossible thing.”

“The Nickel Boys” follows Whitehead’s 2016 novel, “The Underground Railroad,” which won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. His new novel is another disturbing but important work that highlights the reality of racism and the human propensity for evil.

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