Colson Whitehead’s latest novel The Nickel Boys is set during the civil rights movement in Florida. Though his work is fictional, Whitehead says he was inspired to write it after learning about the Dozier School for Boys which operated in Marianna, Florida from 1900-2011.
Elwood, the book’s main character, is an idealistic black teenager. His prize possession is a record of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches. Even though Elwood tries to do the right things–get good grades, stay away from troublemakers in the neighborhood–it seems that society is out to get him.
Besides his grandmother who raised him, almost no one else in the black community wants Elwood to succeed. The staff at the hotel where his grandmother works resents him sitting around reading comic books and the Hardy Boys so much that they trick him into “winning” a dish washing competition. His prize is a set of encyclopedias a salesman left at the hotel. After lugging the volumes home, Elwood realizes that except for the first volume, all the others have blank pages.
The ultimate betrayal of Elwood by another black man occurs when he tries to hitchhike on his way to his first college class. Though Elwood doesn’t know it, the driver stole the car and when they are stopped by a white policeman Elwood is also assumed to be guilty. He’s sent to Nickel Academy, a so-called reform school for young men.
At Nickel Elwood learns that the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. mean nothing in society’s corrupt justice system. Listening to Dr. King, Elwood has come to believe that he is “somebody” and that he “must walk the streets of life everyday with this sense dignity and this sense of somebody-ness.” At Nickel, the boys, especially the black ones, are nobody.
Elwood’s attempts to treat others with dignity makes him step in when he sees a smaller boy being beaten by two bigger ones. All the boys involved are sent to the “White House,” a shed on the academy grounds where one of the supervisors, a white man named Spencer, beats each boy. Elwood is beaten so badly that the beating embeds parts of his denim pants in his skin and he’s sent to the academy’s hospital. Elwood tells one of the other boys in the hospital that he still thinks blacks can stand up for themselves thanks to the civil rights movement. The other boy, named Turner, replies, “that sh-t barely works out there– [in the outside world] what do you think it’s going to do in here?”
Despite the injustice the boys at Nickel experience, author Colson Whitehead also shows that friendship and community can survive in horrible circumstances. Spencer and Elwood become friends while in the hospital together, where Spencer cheers Elwood up with jokes. He also helps Elwood out by recommending him for a job that allows the two boys to get out of Nickel for a while to deliver supplies that are supposed to go to the black boys but are resold. Spencer describes Elwood as “sturdy,” and trusts him far more than the other boys. He shares things he’s heard with Elwood, like the fact that Spencer has fixed a fight with a white boy against a black one so the white boy has to win. Unfortunately the black boy Griff forgets to throw the match and is taken to a special spot for black boys only where two oaks have iron rings stabbed into their bark and boys are horsewhipped. Griff never returns. Whitehead emphasizes the sense of community the black boys have for each other: “He [Griff] was all of them in one black body that night in the ring, and all of them when the white men took him out back to those two iron rings.”
In addition to the novel’s great themes of injustice and community, I really admired Whitehead’s writing style. I loved how he managed to convey an important story without wasting one word. Many authors seem to feel like they have to write 500 pages whether or not all those pages are necessary. The Nickel Boys is an example of what I want my own writing to be–both succinct and profound. The ending was so powerful that I needed tissues. I highly recommend this book for ages fourteen and up.