The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead
Colson Whitehead, author of the acclaimed The Underground Railroad, has surpassed himself in his new achingly poignant novel, The Nickel Boys. Although the book is set in the fictional Panhandle town of Eleanor, FL, the story is based on the recent discovery by archeology students from the University of South Florida of mass graves on the property of the Dozier School for Boys (which closed its doors in 2011 after over a century of operation.) The first page of the book sets the scene when a developer accidentally stumbles on a secret grave where over 80 unidentified bodies are interred. Colson wryly comments that the exasperated Attorney General wanted it, “razed, cleared and erased from history, which everyone agreed was long overdue.” For the next 200 pages, Colson deftly bounces back and forth between racially segregated Florida of the 1960s and present-day New York City and concludes with a gut-punch reveal at the end. Our protagonist, Elwood Curtis, a black teenager being raised by his grandmother, is a good student who does his best to stay out of trouble. He experiences a nascent awakening to the civil rights movement through MLK but before he can commit to action, his world disintegrates. On the cusp of realizing his dream after being awarded the chance to take courses in a local community college, Elwood is unfairly arrested for “riding in a car while black.” Thus begins his precarious slide down the slippery slope of racial bigotry of the Jim Crow South. He is sent to the (Klan-endorsed) Nickel Academy where the expected horrors of of the delinquent charges pale in comparison to the sadism of the men in charge. As in The Underground Railroad, Whitehead “refuses to provide an escape hatch for this characters or his readers.” Suffice it to say that although this novel is a quick read, it will leave a lasting impression.