Book Review: The Nickel Boys

In my last post, I told you that I would let you know what I thought about Colson Whitehead’s latest book, The Nickel Boys. It was the first book I checked out since the Wake County Library System had begun no-contact checking out books on hold since the beginning of the coronavirus shutdown. I had requested the book in part in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, and in part because this African American author has won two Pulitzer Prizes in four years, but as I stated earlier in my blog, I hadn’t read his most recent winner because I hadn’t loved his former winner. But if the biggest institutions in literature thought he was so good, I figured I should give him a second chance.

I finished it last night, having consumed it over two nights (I restrict my “leisure reading” to after dinner because otherwise, I probably wouldn’t get my work done.) In a word…Wow!

I like this book much more than The Underground Railroad. I don’t want to talk about where The Underground Railroad went off rails for me, because of spoilers. The Nickel Boys is significantly different. Of course, at this point, three or four years later, I am different too.

The Nickel Boys is a terse (just over 200 pages), realistic novel about events in my lifetime. It is a story that seduced Whitehead from his original plan of writing a detective story when he encountered the real life story of a boys “reform school” in Florida called the Dozier School for Boys in Marianne, Florida. The “School,” opened in 1900, was only closed in 2011 after failing a state investigation. In addition to stories of the ex-students, who are referred to as survivors, university archeology students have been uncovering graves, both acknowledged and hidden, that demonstrate signs of cruelty, abuse, and even murder…compounded by racial discrimination.

The main character in the novel, which is mostly set in the 1960s, is an idealistic African American young man, intelligent, studious, and hardworking, who is inspired to live by the preachings of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He is imprisoned unjustly at an institution called the Nickel Academy, and attempts to follow the school’s rules while following Dr. King’s lessons. While there are both white and black “students” there, the blacks suffer more than the whites, although no one is immune to the violence that is prevalent in the school.

I won’t say any more about the plot, because I don’t want to ruin it for anyone. I will just give you my reaction to having read it.

I’m not a fan of horror, either in books or in movies. But this book was close to a “horror-light” book for me. The protagonist, Elwood Curtis, is very sympathetic in the beginning. So I read each page with a sense of foreboding of what was to happen to him. Then I met more and more of the so-called “White House boys,” and worried about them as well

That’s not really an experience I enjoy in reading. However, reading is not always about enjoyment; sometimes it is about what we need to know, whether we like it or not.

The real thing for me was that it helped me to experience vicariously, as a white woman, the foreboding that so many African Americans feel every day. It really demonstrated some of the ways that racism was institutionalized in those days. It doesn’t spend much of the novel in more current times, but it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to extrapolate from then to what goes on today.

I think it is a great book to help people like me to see more clearly about white privilege. I’m really glad I read it, and now I need to go back and see what I missed in The Underground Railroad.

There are lots of great non-fiction books out there right now aimed at explaining to white people what we don’t see about racism; I’m signed up for a book discussion club about one myself. Still, I believe in the power of story. I think it is great to read books where you can really lose yourself in the experience of someone whose experience is very different from your own. Understanding something intellectually is one thing; experiencing it vicariously through a captivating novel is another level.

One thing that discourages me is that of the 103 copies of the book held by the Wake County Public Libraries, of which nearly 30 are currently checked in, there are only 18 on the wait list. If you are in the Wake County system and haven’t read this book, I suggest you request it through our new Books to Go program. And if you are outside Wake County…well, I suggest you read it as well, however you can.

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