The Nickel Boys
By Colson Whitehead
A child ready to become a man, inspired by the words of justice and equality by Dr. King; children cut off from their families, kind boys, lost boys, cruel boys and men thrown together; and a reform school where food and materials meant for black inmates are sold and some boys disappear. They are the Nickel Boys. Some of them survived.
In Colson Whitehead's new novel, The Nickel Boys, revives the hopes, the loss of dreams, the cruelty and evil of Jim Crow segregated "reform schools". The Nickel School in this novel is based on such a Floridian institution.
Elwood is on the cusp of manhood, being raised by his grandmother in Tallahassee during the early days of the Civil Rights movement. He wants to learn about everything and is careful in matters great and small. A record album his grandmother purchased of Dr. King's speeches is his lodestone. The hard-working teen, trusted by his white employer and ready to start early college classes, makes one error in judgment.
Elwood's views of individual and systemic justice don't stand a chance at a place like Nickel, the reform school where he is sent. Elwood is not corrupted by the system he encounters at Nickel. He suffers through learning how to navigate that system, and refuses to give up on Dr. King's ideals. He wants to emulate his hero.
His friend, Turner, does not look at the world in the same way. He already knows there is no such thing as justice and that what you do will never be as important to those in power as what you are. If Turner can game the situation, he will. It's what he has learned to do to survive. It's how he gets by.
Both boys do what they can to cope as best they know how, whether it's the random but expected little acts of cruelty or beatings so severe a boy ends up in a hospital bed on campus. Whether it's working on campus or even off the grounds, it doesn't matter. Working hard doesn't pay off if someone in power has it in for you. And if someone in power can use you, don't mistake what they do as acts of kindness or understanding. After all, there is an unmarked graveyard.
Even in these dire conditions, with characters mired in can't-win situations, Whitehead writes about dignity and caring. The stories of the boys remain stories of boys and how they try to figure out how to become men. They observe, they work, they have a code of honor that serves them as can be best expected. Some endure. Some never quit being free in their souls. Others will remain imprisoned regardless of whether they left the place or not.
This is an important work. It is not fanciful. It is moored to reality, but with its spirit of humanity, it is not weighed down.
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