The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead tells the story of Elwood Curtis, a Black young man growing up in Tallahassee during the 1950s and 60s. Elwood is surrounded by the injustice of segregation but inspired by the early Civil Rights Movement. Raised with the love of his strict and religious grandmother, Elwood is described as industrious. He is a serious hard-working boy who is unable to turn a blind eye to injustice. It sets him apart from the other boys around him but also puts him in difficult situations.
Nickel is a reform school for juvenile males which has been closed down a few years at the time The Nickel Boys begins. A real estate company is in the process of purchasing the land from the state when bodies are found during the environmental study. As development grinds to a halt pending an investigation and resettlement of the remains, the situation garners media attention and adds credibility to the claims of the boys who are now men and served time at the institution.
Miles away one of these men sees the news reports and is aware that the stories shared in an online support group for Nickel survivors are true. Scarred and scared from his own experiences at Nickel he would prefer to forget about what happened and just move on with his life. But his past experiences at Nickel still haunt him decades later and renewed coverage of the school reopens old wounds.
The book shifts back and forth between two chronological paths, Elwood’s childhood and time at Nickel and the time after he leaves Nickel to the present. Although the story jumps around it’s still easy to follow as the two timelines work together to add context to the development of the characters. Also, there are multiple short stories about some of the other boys and their life experiences before, during, and after Nickel.
Sheltered by his grandmother, Elwood begins as a naive boy who is appreciated at first by the older males around him. But as time and the men around him change, the qualities for which he was once admired become a source of ridicule and cruel jokes. It’s clear that Elwood is intelligent and has the potential to achieve a lot in life. But the likelihood of his success isn’t certain as he’s a Black youth growing up in the segregated South.
Living in historically Black Frenchtown, Elwood experiences the limitations of Jim Crow but is somewhat shielded from the worst of the system. For example, as a young boy, he spends time in the kitchen of the grand hotel where his grandmother works hoping for the day when people like them are allowed to eat in the dining room. He later gets a part-time job at a local White-owned store and when neighbors stop by they check up on him to ensure he’s being treated fairly by the owner. The store’s owner comes to like and look out for him as well.
While Elwood is attending school, he and other students receive second-hand textbooks that were previously used by students at the White high school. Knowing that their school’s cast-offs were given to Black students, the White students would write curse words and racial slurs in the textbooks. The Black students customarily dealt with the demeaning text by ignoring it until a new teacher, Mr. Hill comes along. Active within the Civil Rights Movement, Mr. Hill instructs the students to address the problem head-on by redacting all the vile inscriptions. He shows them a small way in which they can take action and teaches them in the process that they don’t have to just accept mistreatment.
This reminded me of one of my junior high school social studies teachers who grew up in Florida. One day she went on one of her old lady rants about us kids not appreciating things because we forgot our textbooks all about the place. In passing, she mentioned that as a kid, she and her classmates had to use second-hand textbooks from White schools in which the first users would scrawl all kinds of vile things. I was still careless with my textbooks at times but understood why she stressed the importance of us valuing the opportunity to get an education.
In addition to Mr. Hill, Elwood is also heavily influenced by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Within his grandmother’s home, gospel music and Dr. King’s speeches are the only records that are allowed to be played. Throughout the book, Elwood reflects on particular moments from the records of Dr. King’s speeches and relies on them for support and guidance.
Elwood’s grandmother, Harriet, is a religious woman who tries to keep Elwood on the right path and I would say that she’s successful in that regard. She’s lost her father, husband, and daughter through different means but all as a result of the pressures and inequality of Jim Crow. This has made her fearful of speaking out against injustices or pushing for more in life. She’s the embodiment of Dr. King’s statement that Black people will suffer injustices and endure. But with the difference being that she is afraid to take action to ease her suffering.
Turner and Elwood meet during their time at Nickel and while the two are quite different, they manage to form a deep friendship. Like Harriet, Turner has endured a lot in life having lost his mother and never having much of a relationship with his father. He’s been on his own and taking care of himself from a very young age. Not having much in the way of family Turner has been bumping around from place to place, surviving as best as he could. He’s also enduring but his experiences have made him jaded and distrustful. Turner doesn’t bully or take advantage of others but he keeps his head down and ignores the injustices around him as a means of survival.
When Elwood arrives at Nickel, it looks like a decent place from the outside. There are no decrepit buildings or imposing fences as few physical barriers or precautions are in place to keep the boys from escaping. But, Elwood quickly learns from the other boys and his own experiences that are circumstances and psychological barriers to keep the boys penned in.
I’d never given it much thought but as other facets of society were segregated, so were prisons. Elwood is driven to the prison with a few other boys who are white. They’re instructed to pick out their sizes for uniforms and Elwood is directed to choose from a pile of clothes that are in worse condition. After their initial orientation, the boys are split up and sent to the respective sections for Black and White boys. The White boys suffer many of the same injustices as the Black boys but small advantages and comforts are given to the White boys to enforce the racial hierarchy on the campus.
The school’s founder had no experience as an educator or with youth reform. Instead, his speeches and connections at Klan meetings resulted in him being selected to establish and lead the school. Greater focus was placed on physical labor and bringing the young men to heel rather than their education or the issues that were causing them to get into trouble. The school’s resources were poured into areas that either used the boys’ free labor to create income for the school or from which administrators personally profited.
A big deal is made of Nickel instilling discipline in and reforming these young men. But the school has no real regard for their welfare, especially not the Black boys. They are to alternate between working and attending school so they don’t fall behind their peers. But the teachers don’t take attendance or give grades and being allowed to leave the school has more to do with getting with the program than progressing in any meaningful way. Many of the boys don’t have a family to look out for them or offer proper guidance and some can’t read or grasp basic math. When they come to Nickel they’re made to work hard but see the administrators slacking off. And their time in the classroom is a joke as the teacher doesn’t teach and it’s one of the few times of day where they can do pretty much whatever they want.
Some of the boys at Nickel were sent to the school because they’ve legitimately done bad things. But many of the boys are at the school because they don’t have families or their families are unwilling/incapable of caring for them. Unfortunately, the environments that should attract people who wish to do good in the world sometimes become a hunting ground for those who seek easy victims. Some of the administrators physically and sexually abuse the kids while also running scams and hustles out of the school. Using their power and authority to control and intimidate, the administrators teach the kids inappropriate behavior which they then pass on to other kids. It creates a vicious cycle in the school of people plotting to take advantage of others. Given that the boys are all under 18-years-old, it means they’re spending part of their formative years soaking up these negative examples.
Elwood can’t believe what’s going on at the school and is shocked that none of the boys seem to be trying to fight back. Turner has seen it all as while being on his own in the world he has experienced much of the worst that it has to offer. Before arriving at Nickel, Elwood felt compelled to get involved in the Civil Rights Movement and had participated in protests. Turner had to work to support himself and viewed the activists as having the luxury to be protesting. He was surprised that their action opened the local lunch counter but being too poor to afford to eat there his circumstances hadn’t changed much. For Turner, it wasn’t a matter of Black or White but rather the inhumane manner in which people treated each other regardless of color.
Following a run-in with the powers that be at Nickel, Elwood is physically injured but also psychologically damaged. He tries to keep his head down and blend in with the other boys, turning a blind eye to wrongdoings and swallowing the injustices he faces. But, he’s never quite able to fully swallow the pill of complacency. Instead, he bides his time and waits for an opportunity to take a stand.
Most good stories have a character arc where a character goes on a journey or has experiences that shape and transform them by the end. The thing that stood out to me about The Nickel Boys is that Elwood never undergoes this transformation. At six years old, he is abandoned by his parents without a goodbye and never hears from them again. Yet, with his grandmother’s presence and love, he never truly feels like an orphan. He is wrongfully convicted as a result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But, he tries to learn and follow the rules at Nickel so he can be released and move forward with his life. He is severely beaten as a result of trying to defend someone. But, not willing to let the assault break his spirit he develops a plan to try to defend and save himself and all of the boys at Nickel.
A paragraph early in The Nickel Boys stood out to me:
“There are big forces that want to keep the Negro down, like Jim Crow, and there are small forces that want to keep you down, like other people, and in the face of all those things, the big ones and the smaller ones, you have to stand up straight and maintain your sense of who you are. The encyclopedias are empty. There are people who trick you and deliver emptiness with a smile, while others rob you of your self-respect. You need to remember who you are.”
Within the context of the book, that paragraph perfectly sums up Elwood’s character and what he stands for. Regardless of the things he goes through and how cruel life and people are to him, he never allows it to change him or his sense of self. From a young age, Elwood has a very strong moral code and shows on multiple occasions that he is willing to sacrifice himself to defend what he knows to be right. He is steadfast and uncompromising in his beliefs which perplexes many of the people around him because their character is defined by their willingness to compromise on right and wrong.
Throughout the book, Whitehead constantly returns to Dr. King’s teachings of fighting hate with love. Fighting against injustice with a fervent commitment to doing what’s right rather than allowing yourself to become unjust in the process. Often, Dr. King’s philosophy is over-simplified to turning the other cheek when struck by injustice.
There’s a passage where Elwood recalls Dr. King speaking about wearing down opponents to equality through Black people’s capacity for love and ability to endure suffering. To be honest, I rolled my eyes when I first read the quote and sided with Elwood as he questioned the call to love those who hated and oppressed him and the other boys. A few days after I finished the book I was writing this review and started thinking about Dr. King’s message, the actions it inspired Elwood to take, and the varied opinions on the strategies of the Civil Rights Movement.
I don’t think Dr. King was calling for Black people to simply accept the injustices they were suffering and have faith that they would be rewarded by things getting better one day in the future. Instead, I think he was saying that Black people would get through whatever hardships and obstacles segregationists and White supremacists threw in their way. Facing discrimination for generations would not change their character but would instead motivate them to change society. Fighting for equality would improve conditions for everyone, including the very people who sought to oppress them. The message was not about enduring and hoping that one day these oppressors would come to love you. But rather persevering and pushing society to progress for the greater good and thus as an act of love for the world.
A few years ago I read and reviewed Whitehead’s previous novel, The Underground Railroad. I thought it was a great book and looked forward to reading more from the author so I immediately added The Nickel Boys to my list when it was released last summer. Somehow I overlooked that Whitehead had written seven books prior and will probably check out some of those titles. But his two books that I’ve read so far have an energy that I enjoyed even at points when I’ve been a bit ho-hum on the story.
Usually, I just read a book for the story so I skip introductions, forewards, acknowledgments, and anything else along those lines. But, for whatever reason, I ended up reading the acknowledgments. While I assumed that Colson Whitehead drew inspiration for the book from the real world I thought the whole thing sprang forth from his imagination. I was shocked to read that it was inspired by an investigative article and books about a real place, Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys (aka Florida School for Boys) which was located in Marianna, Florida. I plan to read the article and books that Whitehead mentions but given how upsetting I found this work of fiction, I think I need to give myself some time before reading about Dozier.
I started reading The Nickel Boys shortly after it was awarded the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Sometimes I’m a bit skeptical when books or movies are very popular and win awards because I’ve been disappointed in the past. While reading The Nickel Boys I thought it was a good book but didn’t see its genius until I got to the end and read the plot twist. It was like listening to a rap song or standup routine for the first time and hearing a really dope punchline. I highly recommend reading The Nickel Boys and having some patience as the characters struggle in the story. The book is short but you need the full story to give you the proper context and setup for the last few chapters which are amazing.
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