REVIEW: Colson Whitehead's Latest Novel is Timely -- and Destined to be a Classic

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Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

Doubleday 224 pp.

By Kimberly Fain

In Colson Whitehead’s latest novel, Nickel Boys, he takes us to a reform school in Florida. At the Nickel Academy, juveniles are regularly tortured and sometimes murdered. As a result, littered among the school’s property are unmarked graves. Elwood Curtis, the novel’s lead character, arrives at Nickel as an idealistic young man. He is bound for college — until he meets with unfortunate circumstances.

With this new novel, Whitehead forces us to contend with a criminal justice system that is more about profit than actual reform. As in his Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning Underground Railroad, Whitehead interrogates a corrupt system that has haunted Americans for generations. With Nickel Boys, Whitehead continues to triumph in a literary space of his own invention.

Inspired by the horrors at the real-life Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianne, Florida, Whitehead creates a tale that mirrors the lives of the actual young men who attended that institution. Despite the survivors’ endless reports of abuse, Dozier, which was founded in 1910, continued to operate until 2011. In the opening of the novel, Whitehead describes how the public eventually learned about the horrors that lay within his fictionalized version of the school: University of South Florida archaeology students discover “bones and belt buckles and soda bottles” in a secret graveyard at Nickel. Once the archaeology students share their discoveries of human remains, the media runs with the story.

This coverage of the Nickel Academy’s horrors, however, comes too late. Many of the survivors have led lives of unending struggle. Some died in prison. One man, after consuming turpentine, was found frozen dead in the woods. There is a support group, and a website used to document the boys’ tragic experiences.

At the center of the story is Elwood Curtis. Abandoned by his parents at the age of six, Elwood is a studious young man living with his grandmother in Tallahassee, Florida, with a part-time job at a tobacco store. He uses some of his money to support the household and saves the rest for college.

Before he becomes a Nickel Boy, he is a teenager who has dreams of participating in the Civil Rights Movement. His favorite teacher is Mr. Hill, a Freedom Rider. Hill challenges his students to have pride in themselves and to stand up for their rights. At home, Elwood repeatedly plays a record of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “At Zion Hill” speech. As Dr. King suggests, Elwood aspires to have forgiveness for his oppressors. Unfortunately, his self-pride is tested when he meets with unforgivable circumstances.   

While still in high school, Elwood starts taking classes at a nearby college. After his bike chain is broken in a brutal attack, he walks seven miles to college or hitches a ride. One day, when Elwood catches a ride with a sketchy dude named Rodney who reminds him of a gangster from the movies, his life changes forever. Unbeknownst to him, Rodney was driving a stolen Plymouth Fury. With his gun out, the white deputy asks no questions, utters a racial slur, and arrests Elwood and Rodney on the spot.

When Elwood arrives at the racially segregated Nickel Academy, it is clear that the school has no real intention of reforming the boys. Instead of an education, they are given chores, physical labor, and severe abuse at a building called the White House. The Nickel Boys are leased out to families and businesses to work, an exploitative form of involuntary servitude that financially benefits local officials at the expense of their defenseless charges.

The Nickel Boys is a timely novel. There is enormous interest right now in criminal justice reform. There are endless stories of innocent people like Elwood sentenced to jail. Once in the system, they often become prey. Even though stories of child abuse keep appearing in the news, Americans continue to be shocked by each new case. A recurrent feature of all of them is the reluctance of those in a position to intervene to confront the abusers. To this day, nobody has ever been criminally punished for committing crimes at Dozier. Like the men who survived that real-life horror chamber, the Nickel Boys are left to deal with the life-long fallout from others’ misdeeds.

The Nickel Boys is destined to be another Colson Whitehead classic. The terse prose keeps a steady and suspenseful pace, as new forms of systemic harm keep emerging. Whitehead’s new work once again demonstrates his greatest talent: crafting a memorable story in a way that forces America to listen.