The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

nickel-boys-1In early 1960s Tallahassee, teenaged Elwood lives with his grandmother, works hard in a neighborhood shop, and quietly chafes against the strictures of segregated Florida.  Reserved and studious, but wanting something better, a college education and social change are his twin aims, and it appears that he could achieve both.  Elwood then makes the worst mistake of his life and is sentenced to Nickel Academy, a reform school.

As an institution, Nickel promotes itself in glowing terms; the reality is much more horrific.  Inmates are routinely beaten for minor offenses and sometimes sexually molested.  On occasion, they disappear.  As most of the kids are from broken homes or orphaned, it’s rare that anyone cares.

After making his first blunder with the authorities there, Elwood walks the straight and narrow of Nickel Academy, hoping he can get promoted through the school’s established ranks and win release. His friend Turner manages to get Elwood on an outside job detail, where both of them can experience the world beyond Nickel, and Elwood’s methodical approach to work certainly helps. But either of them can easily fall victim to the whims of the sadists that run Nickel Academy.

The author doesn’t hold back the grimness of the situation, be it the miserable life in the reformatory or the difficulties of African-Americans during the civil rights movement of the 1960s.  The Nickel Boys is a sad tale, but a necessary one, with a twist near the end that I didn’t see coming.  There are several future time shifts in the narrative that provide some hope to the aftermath of the Nickel experience.

Read the Acknowledgments section at the end. It’s brief, but worth checking out for the author’s sources – the Nickel Academy is based on the real life Dozier School, an infamous institution that finally closed in 2011.

(William Hicks, Information Services)


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