Oh my goodness, this book is brilliant. Everybody must go out and buy/beg/borrow it and read it immediately.
I am ashamed to say I knew nothing about Colson Whitehead and I bought this book purely because it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2020 and I am on a mission to read as many Pulitzer and Booker prize winners as possible.
In fact, this book is the second of Whitehead’s to win a Pulitzer. He also won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction with his novel The Underground Railroad making him one of only four authors to have achieved this feat (the others are Booth Tarkington 1919 and 1922, William Faulkner 1955 and 1963 and John Updike 1982 and 1991).
The Nickel Boys is fiction but the inspiration for it came from the investigations and excavations of Dozier School, an historic reform school in Florida that operated for more than a century.
Archaeological investigations as well as testimonies from former inmates discovered unmarked graves, unrecorded deaths and a history of abuse and harsh punishments that continued well into the 20th century. What happened in some of these reform schools is nothing less than an atrocity and should be a cause of shame.
In The Nickel Boys, Whitehead uses two timelines to tell the story of Elwood Curtis and The Nickel Academy.
Florida in the 1960s and Elwood is a hard-working, well-behaved and intelligent student who gets the chance to take after-school lessons at a university because of his high-intelligence. Hitching a lift to his first lessons, he doesn’t know the vehicle is in has been stolen. He is arrested and sent to the Nickel Academy reform school.
He tries desperately to live by the teachings of his hero Martin Luther King but after severe beatings for minor infringements of rules at the ‘school’ and the cynicism of his friend and fellow inmate Jack Turner, that isn’t quite so easy.
The alternate timeline picks up the story in the 2010s. An investigation is underway into the activities at The Nickel Academy and Elwood Curtis is invited to testify about what he saw and underwent during his time there.
This novel is just so beautifully written. It’s dealing with an horrific subject matter but it isn’t all doom and gloom. It is gritty but the relationship between Elwood and Jack and Elwood’s fierce determination to live his life the way he feels he ought to are incredibly touching.
But it is so sad and made even sadder by the fact that reading this work of fiction, I knew that atrocities like these were all to true – and all too recent.
Issues of racism and intolerance are still prevalent now but I seriously hope nothing even vaguely akin to The Nickel Academy exists in America any longer.
The Nickel Boys is one of those novels that everyone should be made to read in school so that everyone knows what happened and tries their hardest to prevent anything like that happening again.
Read it, read it, read it. I can’t recommend it highly enough. I am now off to order The Underground Railroad!