“All the boys knew about that rotten spot,” describes the narrator of The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead’s searing novel set in Jim Crow-era Florida. The boys, students of Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory, are just that—boys, kids, those who were “tied up in a potato sack and dumped.”
Decades later, an archaeology student from the University of South Florida discovers the unmarked grave because “the dirt looked wrong,” and unearths the atrocities—from beatings to rapes—that took place at what was considered a school. Inspired by the history of Florida’s Dozier School for Boys, where kids were viciously abused, many of whom died, Whitehead merges the present with the past—detailing systemic violence, and how, years later, victims carry the effects of trauma.
Elwood Curtis, one of the boys, is “intelligent and hardworking and a credit to his race.” A caring grandson who reads encyclopedias, listens to records of Dr. King’s speeches, and works after school and on the weekends in a tobacco shop organizing comic books and sweeping dust, Elwood is ordered to Nickel after he is falsely accused of stealing a car while hitchhiking to college. Elwood’s naiveté and idealism withstand his unjust punishment. Upon arriving and seeing boys playing football instead of “kids attached to balls and chains,” he believes Nickel won’t be “that bad.” The optimism lasts until his first visit to the “White House,” the facility in which the boys receive a taste of “Black Beauty”—a leather strap and one of the many tools used to carry out the staff’s abuses.
Through this event and by witnessing other cruelties, Elwood realizes that “there was no was higher system guiding Nickel’s brutality, merely an indiscriminate spite.”
While at Nickel, Elwood befriends Turner, a cynical teen who possesses a worldliness the former lacks. While talking in the infirmary, Turner explains to Elwood what he’s come to understand about life, saying, “I used to think out there is out there and then once you’re in here, you’re in here. That everybody in Nickel was different because of what being here does to you. . . But now that I been out and I been brought back, I know there’s nothing in here that changes people. In here and out there are the same, but in here no one has to act fake anymore.”
A child of the Civil Rights movement, where bus boycotts and sit-ins are countered with metal bars and fire hoses, Turner realizes “you can change the law but you can’t change people and how they treat each other.” Still, together the two do their best to endure Nickel and leave their confinement by means other than death—a goal made more difficult because they are black.
A novel of humble length, The Nickel Boys delivers devastating truths through the honesty and precision of Whitehead’s prose. Effortlessly weaving temporal narratives, Whitehead makes clear that even if you survive Nickel, freedom is not guaranteed. The boys who manage to make it out become men with “wives and ex-wives and children they did and didn’t talk to. . . dead in prison, or decomposing in rooms they rented by the week.” They attempt to find support and solace through each other, meeting annually to recollect and tour their former campus, submitting chilling details of their past to be shared on an online database. A confession, a reckoning; and one hour, some days, some years, are too much to confront.
Is it possible to claim a life when, and if, you survive unconscionable evils? And is that enough—to survive—and not live? Returning to the prologue, Whitehead writes, “Plenty of boys had talked about the secret graveyard before, but as it had ever been with Nickel, no one believed them until someone else said it.” Though fiction, the sentence fingers the actuality of centuries-old wounds of oppressed and disenfranchised populations of America who are perpetually silenced. What The Nickel Boys undoubtedly achieves is the voice it provides to a muted chorus of untold truths and histories that are waiting to sing, waiting to be heard.