Book Review: The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead | More2Read
 

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead


In this bravura follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize, and National Book Award-winning #1 New York Times bestseller The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead brilliantly dramatizes another strand of American history through the story of two boys sentenced to a hellish reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida.

As the Civil Rights movement begins to reach the black enclave of Frenchtown in segregated Tallahassee, Elwood Curtis takes the words of Dr. Martin Luther King to heart: He is “as good as anyone.” Abandoned by his parents, but kept on the straight and narrow by his grandmother, Elwood is about to enroll in the local black college. But for a black boy in the Jim Crow South of the early 1960s, one innocent mistake is enough to destroy the future. Elwood is sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy, whose mission statement says it provides “physical, intellectual and moral training” so the delinquent boys in their charge can become “honorable and honest men.”

In reality, the Nickel Academy is a grotesque chamber of horrors where the sadistic staff beats and sexually abuses the students, corrupt officials and locals steal food and supplies, and any boy who resists is likely to disappear “out back.” Stunned to find himself in such a vicious environment, Elwood tries to hold onto Dr. King’s ringing assertion “Throw us in jail and we will still love you.” His friend Turner thinks Elwood is worse than naive, that the world is crooked, and that the only way to survive is to scheme and avoid trouble.

The tension between Elwood’s ideals and Turner’s skepticism leads to a decision whose repercussions will echo down the decades. Formed in the crucible of the evils Jim Crow wrought, the boys’ fates will be determined by what they endured at the Nickel Academy.

Based on the real story of a reform school in Florida that operated for one hundred and eleven years and warped the lives of thousands of children, The Nickel Boys is a devastating, driven narrative that showcases a great American novelist writing at the height of his powers.


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Praise for The Nickel Boys:

“The acclaimed author of The Underground Railroad follows up with a leaner, meaner saga of Deep South captivity set in the mid-20th century and fraught with horrors more chilling for being based on true-life atrocities.There’s something a tad more melodramatic in this book’s conception (and resolution) than one expects from Whitehead, giving it a drugstore-paperback glossiness that enhances its blunt-edged impact.”
– Kirkus Review

“Whitehead follows his dynamic, highly awarded, best-selling Civil War saga, The Underground Railroad, with a tautly focused and gripping portrait of two African American teens during the last vicious years of Jim Crow. . . Whitehead’s magnetic characters exemplify stoicism and courage, and each supremely crafted scene smolders and flares with injustice and resistance, building to a staggering revelation.”
– Booklist Online

“Whitehead’s brilliant examination of America’s history of violence is a stunning novel of impeccable language and startling insight.”
– Publishers Weekly

“A gripping and brilliant novel based on a true story about a boys’ reformatory school in Florida in the 1960s. Whitehead is one of the most daring and gifted authors writing these days, and I will never miss one of his books.”
– Elizabeth Gilbert, author of City of Girls


Review:

“The capacity to suffer. Elwood—all the Nickel boys—existed in the capacity. Breathed in it, ate in it, dreamed in it. That was their lives now. Otherwise they would have perished. The beatings, the rapes, the unrelenting winnowing of themselves. They endured. But to love those who would have destroyed them? To make that leap?”

“Their daddies taught them how to keep a slave in line, passed down this brutal heirloom. Take him away from his family, whip him until all he remembers is the whip, chain him up so all he knows is chains. A term in an iron sweatbox, cooking his brains in the sun, had a way of bringing a buck around, and so did a dark cell, a room aloft in darkness, outside time.”

“Most of those who know the story of the rings in the trees are dead by now. The iron is still there. Rusty. Deep in the heartwood. Testifying to anyone who cares to listen.”

Elwood Curtis from Tallahassee, Frenchtown.
As a young man he carried himself differently than other peers from his community, industrious and had a steady nature.
Started his keen interest in reading with comics, including ones like Hardy Boys, The Crypt of Terror and The Vault of Horror, he progressed to encyclopaedias and Life magazine in his new job, a magazine that exposed him to more real tales of horror and the rights struggle, he would listen to recordings of Reverend King’s speeches.

A great man was taking form in the heart of a young man, in this poignant stark tale of courage and endurance, Elwood, one well read, heart at conflict with all the inequality around, forging forward, standing up, conscious and heart moving toward a path an active movement forward for rights and equality in an unequal word and place of residence The Nickel.
He wanted people and his race to stand up for themselves, fate threw tragedy in his path in this tale and the journey and road memorable and never to be forgotten.

A pursuit of happiness against the injustices and terrors, a soul finding some ground, strength, courage and voice with important passages containing American terrible horrors and histories, stark realities in time gone and time present.

Colson Whitehead creating a stark continuous dream and nightmare within the reader with Elwood Curtis and The Nickel Boys, Elwood with all that ambition and hope, intelligence and courage, grit and resilience.


Excerpts:

“They didn’t have a TV set but Dr. King’s speeches were such a vivid chronicle—containing all that the Negro had been and all that he would be—that the record was almost as good as television. Maybe even better, grander, like the towering screen at the Davis Drive-In, which he’d been to twice. Elwood saw it all: Africans persecuted by the white sin of slavery, Negroes humiliated and kept low by segregation, and that luminous image to come, when all those places closed to his race were opened.”

“The Crypt of Terror, The Vault of Horror, read by window light in his cousin’s attic. Horror comics, he’d noticed, delivered two kinds of punishment—completely underserved, and sinister justice for the wicked. He placed his current misfortune in the former category and waited to turn the page.”

“Sometimes they take you to the White House and we never see your ass again.”

“It’s not like the old days,” Elwood said. “We can stand up for ourselves.”

“He still hung around the comics, reading them gingerly as if handling dynamite, but the news magazines exerted a gravity. He fell under the luxurious sway of Life magazine. A big white truck dropped off a stack of Life every Thursday—Elwood came to learn the sound of its brakes. Once he sorted the returns and displayed the new arrivals, he hunkered on the stepladder to follow the magazine’s latest excursions into unreckoned corners of America.
He knew Frenchtown’s piece of the Negro’s struggle, where his neighborhood ended and white law took over. Life’s photo essays conveyed him to the front lines, to bus boycotts in Baton Rouge, to counter sit-ins in Greensboro, where young people not much older than him took up the movement. They were beaten with metal bars, blasted by fire hoses, spat on by white housewives with angry faces, and frozen by the camera in tableaus of noble resistance. The tiny details were a wonder: how the young men’s ties remained straight black arrows in the whirl of violence, how the curves of the young women’s perfect hairdos floated against the squares of their protest signs. Glamorous somehow, even when the blood flowed down their faces. Young knights taking the fight to dragons. Elwood was slight-shouldered, skinny as a pigeon, and he worried about the safety of his glasses, which were expensive and in his dreams broken in two by nightsticks, tire irons, or baseball bats, but he wanted to enlist. He had no choice.
Flipping pages during lulls. Elwood’s shifts at Marconi’s provided models for the man he wished to become and separated him from the type of Frenchtown boy he was not.”

“We must believe in our souls that we are somebody, that we are significant, that we are worthful, and we must walk the streets of life every day with this sense of dignity and this sense of somebody-ness. The record went around and around, like an argument that always returned to its unassailable premise, and Dr. King’s words filled the front room of the shotgun house. Elwood bent to a code—Dr. King gave that code shape, articulation, and meaning.”

“Nickel was racist as hell—half the people who worked here probably dressed up like the Klan on weekends—but the way Turner saw it, wickedness went deeper than skin color.”

“..the white men will put up their money and the black boys will put up their hopes, and then the confidence man turns over the ace of spades and rakes it all in.”

“Most of those who know the story of the rings in the trees are dead by now. The iron is still there. Rusty. Deep in the heartwood. Testifying to anyone who cares to listen.”

“There were four ways out of Nickel.
One: Serve your time.
Two: The court might intervene.
Three: You could die.
Fourth: You could run.”

“He never missed a marathon. He didn’t care for the winners, those Superman types hunting world records, slapping down that New York asphalt over bridges and up the extra-wide borough avenues. Camera crews in cars trailed them, zooming in on every drop of sweat and vein jumping in their necks, and white cops on motorcycles, too, to keep nuts from running out from the sidelines and messing with them. Those guys got enough applause, what did they need him for? The winner last year was this African brother, dude was from Kenya. This year it was a white guy from Britain. Built the same, skin color aside—look at those legs and you know they’re going to be in the paper. Pros, training all year, jetting all over the globe to compete. It was easy to root for the winners.
No, he liked the punch-drunk ones, half walking at mile twenty-three, tongues flapping like Labradors. Tumbling across the finish line by hook or by crook, feet pounded to bloody meat in their Nikes. The laggards and limpers who weren’t running the course but running deep into their character—down into the cave to return to the light with what they found. By the time they got to Columbus Circle, the TV crews have split, the cone cups of water and Gatorade litter the course like daisies in a pasture, and the silver space blankets twist in the wind. Maybe they had someone waiting for them and maybe they didn’t. Who wouldn’t celebrate that?
The winners ran alone at the front, then the race course filled up with the pack, the normal joes crammed together. He came out for the runners bringing up the rear and for the crowds on the sidewalks and street corners, those New York mobs so oddball and lovely that they summoned him from his uptown apartment by a force he could only call kinship. Every November the race pitted his skepticism about human beings against the fact that they were all in this dirty city together, unlikely cousins.
The spectators stood on tippy-toes, bellies rubbing on the blue wooden police barriers that get rolled out for races, riots, and presidents, jostling for sight lines, on the shoulders of daddies and boyfriends. Amid the noise of air horns, wolf whistles, and ghetto blasters shouting out old calypso tunes. “Go!” and “You can do it!” and “You got it!” Depending on the breeze the air smelled of Sabrett hot-dog carts or the hairy armpit of that tank-topped chick adjacent. To think of those Nickel nights where the only sounds where tears and insects, how you could sleep in a room crammed with sixty boys and still understand that you were the only person on earth. Everybody around and nobody around at the same time. Here everybody was around and by some miracle you didn’t want to wring their neck but give them a hug. The whole city, poor people and Park Avenue types, black and white, Puerto Ricans, on the curb, holding signs and national flags and cheering the people who had been their opponents the day before in front of them at the A&P checkout, grabbing the last seat on the subway, walking like a walrus too slow on the sidewalk. Competitors for apartments, for schools, for the very air—all those hard-won and cherished animosities fell away for a few hours as they celebrated a rite of endurance and vicarious suffering. You can do it.”

“The capacity to suffer. Elwood—all the Nickel boys—existed in the capacity. Breathed in it, ate in it, dreamed in it. That was their lives now. Otherwise they would have perished. The beatings, the rapes, the unrelenting winnowing of themselves. They endured. But to love those who would have destroyed them? To make that leap? “

“The boys had been trained to wait until spoken to before talking to a white man. Learned this in their earliest days, in school, on the streets and roads of their dusty towns. Had it reinforced at Nickel: You are a colored boy in a white man’s world.”

“They had whipped Elwood. But he took the whipping and he was still here. There was nothing they could do that white people hadn’t done to black people before, were not doing at this moment somewhere in Montgomery and Baton Rouge, in broad daylight on a city street outside Woolworths. Or some anonymous country road with no one to tell the tale. They would whip him, whip him bad, but they couldn’t kill him, not if the government knew what was going on here.”

“Their daddies taught them how to keep a slave in line, passed down this brutal heirloom. Take him away from his family, whip him until all he remembers is the whip, chain him up so all he knows is chains. A term in an iron sweatbox, cooking his brains in the sun, had a way of bringing a buck around, and so did a dark cell, a room aloft in darkness, outside time.”





 

Reviewed by Lou Pendergrast on 15 July 2019