The Nickel Boys
Review by Benjamin Peachey
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead is an expert on creating stories that exist in and comment on the racist history of America, as seen in his previous works like The Intuitionist and The Underground Railroad. The Nickel Boys is his latest to delve into the evil of racism, and face it head on through its characters. What sets this work apart from his other novels, is the juxtaposition of the brutal and the hopeful. That fight is present from the first sentence, even more so by the novel’s close.
In the beginning of this novel, we are introduced to Elwood Curtis in segregated Tallahassee. A bright and inquisitive student, he listens to the records of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches which were “a vivid chronicle” of the history of racism in America. Elwood becomes a victim of bad circumstances and ends up in the Nickel Academy, an academy for reform, in name but not practice, where the boys are sexually abused, beaten, and sometimes murdered by the staff. Elwood must traverse this new world with the help of his fellow Black inmates.
Whitehead creates Elwood and his story from real accounts of the school that the Nickel Academy was based on. This is never clearer than when Elwood is beaten, the descriptions so specific, so real, that they must be from first-hand accounts.
Elwood longed for a world of equality and was ready to fight it anyway he could. “No money at all. They laughed because they knew the drug store didn’t serve colored patrons, and sometimes laughter knocked out a few bricks from the barricade of segregation, so tall and so wide.”
Even in the worst of situations, the boys in this story still see the hope of a world that could be. Martin Luther King Jr. inspires the characters throughout; his exact words appear in the novel. “He lugged his words like an anvil in his Nickel-issued pockets. Darkness cannot drive out darkness, the reverend said, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that. . . . Is this what it felt like? To walk arm in arm in the middle of the street, a link in a living chain, knowing that around the next corner the white mob stood with their baseball bats and fire hoses and curses.”
Whitehead does not create his characters to live in despair and brutality, but to show the journey of how they overcome it. Learning from our past mandates us to confront our present. Whitehead portrays injustice and dares us to look away from the truth he writes.
Published by DoubleDay on July 16, 2019
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