Book Review: The Nickel Boys

I’d like to say that I am a very sophisticated reader who consumes Literature (capital L) and thinks really deep thoughts about it.  Okay, maybe I don’t want to say that about myself—too pretentious.  

But I would like to be a responsible reader, not only reading for my own entertainment and delight (which I do quite a bit), but to expose myself to new ideas, different experiences, and historical contexts.

This is why I read Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys.

From the publisher:

When Elwood Curtis, a black boy growing up in 1960s Tallahassee, is unfairly sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy, he finds himself trapped in a grotesque chamber of horrors. Elwood’s only salvation is his friendship with fellow “delinquent” Turner, which deepens despite Turner’s conviction that Elwood is hopelessly naive, that the world is crooked, and that the only way to survive is to scheme and avoid trouble. As life at the Academy becomes ever more perilous, the tension between Elwood’s ideals and Turner’s skepticism leads to a decision whose repercussions will echo down the decades.

Whitehead is a bit red hot right now.  He won the Pulitzer Prize* for back-to-back novels, first with The Underground Railroad in 2017 and then with The Nickel Boys in 2020.  Both books are horrible, or at least their subject matters are horrible.  In fact, the plight of slaves in The Underground Railroad, the soul-crushing brutality and cruelty the characters face, not to mention that the book is LONGGGGG**, almost made me skip The Nickel Boys.  It was only Mr. Philip’s review that encouraged me that I could, in fact, tackle another horribly terrible story.  “Much easier to get through,” he said.

Well….he didn’t lie.

It was easier to get through, if only because it’s shorter (only 224 pages).  There is also more hope in the story.  I know life isn’t always that well-balanced, but when reading about kids being beaten and molested, it helps.

And it’s an important story to think about right now in particular.  I’m writing this review in September 2020, five months after the murder of George Floyd and the protests that turned into looting and, just, all the rest of it.  I feel that it’s important for me to sit for a few hours in the story of these boys.  

Some of them commit petty crimes.  Some of them are just in the wrong place at the wrong time.  All find themselves at the Nickel Academy through a combination of a broken system of inequalities and a culture where powerful people are ever on the lookout to take advantage of the powerless.  The academy is segregated; poor white kids are easy to abuse too, but the black kids face even more dire circumstances.

It’s a fictional story but it’s based on a real place, and it’s probably a close approximation for lots of similar places.  Boys who were fortunate enough to survive such treatment and the aftermath may still be alive in September 2020.  This could have been the story of their youth.  I imagine it still feels very real and close to them, that it feels not so long ago.  I appreciate the context a story like this gives me for a time such as this.  

Beyond that, I’ll just say a few things about the story itself:

  • While there is a clear plot, the story feels almost like a series of vignettes, evoking a “slice of life” understanding of the time and place.
  • The abuse for the most part isn’t graphic, which like I said earlier, makes it a lot easier to keep reading.
  • I didn’t care for the big twist.  It didn’t seem necessary and somehow felt a little dishonest to the reader. 

Despite that last point, I do recommend reading The Nickel Boys.  It’s a good, horrible story that engages the heart and encourages compassion.  Reading it felt like a responsibility, but a rewarding one.  

My Rating:  4 ½ Stars

* Whitehead is one of only four authors who have won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction twice.  The other three are Booth Tarkington (The Magnificent Ambersons and Alice Adams), William Faulkner (A Fable and The Reivers), and John Updike (Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest). 

** The Underground Railroad is actually not that long.  It’s only 336 pages.  I listened to the audiobook so maybe that’s why it felt longgggggg?  It was also just never-ending horrible stuff happening to the characters, soooooo….maybe just wait for the tv series on Amazon.


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