Reviewed by Adrienne Murr
“The Nickel Boys” is, in short, an outstanding investigation into the role of race and racial prejudice in the lives of young boys during the 1960s. We follow the story of Elwood Curtis, a black teenager in Tallahassee. With his sights set on attending college courses in his best suit, a series of unfortunate events lands him in the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory. Based on the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida, the fictitious Nickel Academy offers no exception to the characteristic treatment of black persons in the South throughout the heart of the civil rights movement.
Colson Whitehead guides us through Elwood’s exploration of his inner self as he struggles through immense trauma and repression. At the Nickel Academy, they came for the boys in the middle of the night with flashlights to take them to the White House for some “ice cream” – sometimes, those boys never came back. Elwood does his time in the White House and he spends isolated days in the dark cell. He carries these experiences with him the rest of his life. Despite the topical impression that, here, white has power over black, further consideration of the dynamics between the boys and the Academy’s staff reveals that when combined with irresponsible scheming, despicable behavior, and illegal correctional methods on the part of the staff, the opposite is revealed. Elwood and his companions, equipped with dark secrets and incriminating notebooks, hold power over the Nickel Academy, black over white. Fear no longer motivates when on the other side of the fence the Nickel Academy is not just.
Further, the Nickel Academy’s point system for its students provides only an illusion of upward mobility. Kind words, wholesome actions earn each boy points. Once he reaches the top, a boy earns his freedom. Certainly, he may be able to go home, but the boy is never entirely rid of his trauma; escape from physical trauma does not demand escape from emotional trauma – Elwood carries it with him for years to come. To highlight this central message, Whitehead effectively transports the reader between Elwood’s present and his past at the Nickel Academy. In doing so, events at the Academy are related to character relationships and reflections in the present. Consider, for example, that when each boy had to care for himself only, or else not survive at the Academy, his sense of community disrupted, as had his trust in peers. Such developmental repercussions reverberate for decades into the future.
To reiterate, Colson Whitehead offers a beautifully written, direct exploration into not only a true experience lived by thousands of black boys in Marianna, Florida at the Dozier School for Boys, but also into how such repressive, abusive situations are influential in the lives of boys like Elwood, leaving an everlasting impact in how they view themselves and their role in a society still severely lacking in social and racial justice.
We will be discussing “The Nickel Boys” at the Book Nook book club via zoom 6pm Wednesday, August 5. Join us by going to www.thebooknookjavashop.com and follow the book club link. Adrienne Murr has been working summers at the Book Nook since she was 9. She is a senior at the University of Texas at Austin majoring in Mathematics.