Knowing what this book was about, I was super nervous about reading it. I was afraid of the intensity of the content. But I still had it tentatively on my TBR, because I had read and really appreciated Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad when I read it a few years ago. (In fact, I event went to see him when he was on tour for it. I dragged my husband because no one else wanted to come with me and he ended up really enjoying himself – Whitehead is an amazing speaker.) Also because honoring the real-life experiences behind this novel, by stepping up and reading about and recognizing them, is important and necessary. When I saw that Whitehead won the Pulitzer for it (his second!), for this book, I knew it was time.
“The country was big, and its appetite for prejudice and depredation limitless. How could they keep up with a host of injustices big and small? […] This was one place, but if there was one, there were hundreds…”
The Nickel Boys is fiction, but it’s based on the true story of the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida. In Whitehead’s novel, Elwood Curtis is a young Black boy in the Jim Crow South, a senior in high school getting ready to start college classes at a local community college. But when he is “caught” in the wrong place, he is sentenced to time at a juvenile reformatory called Nickel Academy. Although Nickel is cast as a place where “misguided” boys received moral training to learn to be “honorable and honest men,” it is, in reality, nothing of the sort. Elwood daily faces what is tantamount to torture, mentally, emotionally, verbally and physically. In this environment, Elwood tries to focus on what he needs to do to get out, keeping his gaze on the future, but it’s nearly impossible under the circumstances. When a decision made by Elwood and his more cynical Nickel friend, Turner, leads to critical moment, they are forced to choose between impossible choices: stay and definitely die (be murdered) or run and probably die (be murdered), but stand a marginal chance at escape.
Whitehead is just SUCH a storyteller. From the very first page, Elwood’s character was vivid and clear, and the unfolding of his tragic and achingly unjust situation is just so easily compelling. Bear in mind, I mean easily as in, I couldn’t stop turning pages because I was sucked in, not easily as in, the topics and plot were easy to read. Oh no. This is a story that should, and does, weigh heavily. A story that is, as it should be, so hard to read. In fact, this book will freeze your blood and have it boiling in rage all at the same time. The system(s) that created the setting and opportunity for this story are reprehensible in terms I actually don’t have. The knowledge of what happened at this school, the “look the other way” attitude, the misuse of so many resources and lives ran deep and there has never been a real reckoning for that. ALL those children’s lives, generations of them, f*cked up beyond recognition and/or lost in painful and horrible ways is almost too much to think about. What they really needed was systemic support, to help them through and past what they were born with, and that was nowhere to be found. It’s a lot, a lot to think about, a lot to handle, a lot to consider. And it should be a more than just a reading experience, but a prompt to address similar systemic issues that are still around, present, very active in the world today. Just because this school has closed, does not mean these structural inequalities, transgressions, mistreatment are not alive and well in many forms – just take a look at the way police brutality against minority (especially Black) bodies is an ever-present reality. Unacceptable.
There are a few other things I want to mention, as far as this novel in particular is concerned, now that I’ve (at least minimally) addressed the larger importance its existence plays. Whitehead walked an incredibly difficult line with his writing, to make the violence against these Black boys’ bodies absolutely un-missable, yet never voyeuristic. It was masterfully handled. I liked the inclusions of the flash forwards included throughout the novel, as they provided the reader a chance to see the myriad ways the Nickel experience affected all the boys so effectively and irreversibly. The transitions in chronology sometimes felt a bit jarring, it took me a moment to readjust to when we were/how far out from Nickel we were, but perhaps that’s because I listened to the audiobook – maybe they were better marked in the physical book. The “twist” at the end is just one more punch to the gut, just like this whole book. It almost felt inevitable, that an ending like that was the way things would fall out. And getting me to that place as a reader in such a short time is a terrifying (as far as the extrapolation of what one can “get used to” to a real-life way, the normalization of that feeling of defeat and inability to change anything) and impressive literary feat. Of note, that’s not to say I saw it coming specifically, as I definitely did not. Relatedly, the plot is smooth and yes, there is a twist, but it’s fairly simple, as plots go. The power of this novel is in the story it’s telling, not the luxurious language or fancy plot devices it uses.
Finally, I think it’s important to point out that I really appreciated the glancing, but realistic, views at the Civil Rights Movement. It’s a time and movement that is incredibly glorified (and heavily misrepresented, if not downright falsely portrayed) in history classes around the country. And although the references during this novel were brief, because they represent Elwood’s limited interactions with it, they still painted a more realistic picture of the actual challenges, threats and personal dangers that the Freedom Fighters faced. The rights they fought for did not come quickly or easily or smoothly or without trauma and loss. In Elwood’s case, the look we get at him as an individual living under its shadow, and the day to day “choice” for dignity vs safety, is nuanced and tender and one of the most affecting aspects of the book, for me.
Overall, reading this was less like reading a piece of literary fiction and more like reading an enlightening [fictional] expose. Whitehead took a compilation of real people and stories and created a striking and intense version of the horrors of this reality that so many lived, that was swept under the table for so long, in order to bring it to the attention of the nation. This was an incredibly harrowing reading experience, but one that is important to go through, because it is nothing compared to the people that actually lived it. Heartbreaking.
A few passage that I highlighted while reading:
“…but as it has always been with Nickel, no one believed them until someone else said it.”
“He kept his head down, and was rewarded, just like they wanted.”
“You teach what you’re taught.”
“It was not enough to survive, you had to live.”