Sharon's Book & Wine Club - March 2020
The Nickel Boys by Colson WhiteHead
As the Civil Rights movement begins to reach the black enclave of Frenchtown in segregated Tallahassee, Elwood Curtis takes the words of Dr. Martin Luther King to heart: He is “as good as anyone.” Abandoned by his parents, but kept on the straight and narrow by his grandmother, Elwood is about to enroll in the local black college. But for a black boy in the Jim Crow South of the early 1960s, one innocent mistake is enough to destroy the future. Elwood is sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy, whose mission statement says it provides “physical, intellectual and moral training” so the delinquent boys in their charge can become “honorable and honest men.”
Wine Selections for this month include:
The Prisoner Red Blend $39.99
Buttercream Chardonnay $13.99
Buy the Book
Why I chose this book? Released in 2019, The Nickel Boys was named by Time Magazine as one of the ten best books of the decade. Additionally, Colson Whitehead is a Pulitzer Prize winning author. Coming off the heels of Black History Month, I wanted to delve into serious African-American story by an African-American author.
What is the book about? This thought-provoking story is inspired by events at the real-life Dozier School for Boys, a now-closed reformatory school in Florida that operated for more than a century. When the facility first opened, it promised to deliver a more enlightened style of reform for troubled youth, but soon devolved into an institute of abuse, rape, and murder.
The story is centered around Elwood Curtis, a strait-laced, scholarly African American teen who dreams that all things are possible. Through no fault of his own, Elwood finds himself at the Nickel Academy, a state-sponsored reform school for boys. It is here that Elwood meets Turner and a host of other black boys trying to navigate the system and work their way out.
At first glance, Nickel Academy appears innocuous with its trim lawns and neat red-brick buildings. Elwood soon realizes that the Nickel Academy is anything but, with its sadistic staff and corrupt officials who systematically abuse the children. Any boy who resists is tortured, and those who repeatedly cause trouble are likely to disappear. Horrified to find himself in such a vicious environment, Elwood tries to hold onto Dr. King’s teachings. His friend Turner thinks Elwood is naive and that the only way to survive is to scheme and go along. As their friendship deepens, the fate of the pair rests not only on their ability to endure, but on courage forged by trust in each other.
What did I like about the book? I personally found this book nearly impossible to put down. Whitehead keeps the story moving, often allowing the reader’s imagination to fill in the gaps of Elwood’s journey. Whitehead’s sentences are chiseled into rhythmic fragments and shards of conversations that are beautifully constructed. The prose is simply written but the plot intricate and emotionally difficult. I find stories written in this fashion refreshing and fast moving, even if the story isn’t moving at all. But Whitehead is careful to stick with a classic three-act structure, keeping the plot moving on pace.
As I fell into the story, I felt such empathy for Elwood, a principled teenager who strives to do the right thing in a world where the adults around him do just the opposite. His reliance on the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. keeps him grounded, even when the world around him is evil and abusive. I especially loved the beginning of Part Three, where Whitehead propels us forward to Elwood as an adult living in New York City. At the time, I questioned Whitehead’s decision in revealing his ending so early, but I found comfort knowing that Elwood had survived the Nickel Academy. With my fears assuaged and my curiosity piqued further, I plowed on, wanting to find out exactly how Elwood gained his freedom. As I reached the final chapters, I found that Whitehead had brilliantly answered my questions.
What I loved most about this book was the rawness of its ending. And that ending is what I will remember most about this story.
What didn’t I like about the book? The horror of the abuse is tough to read. And for me, what made it more difficult was knowing the truth of the story.
Who should read it? Be warned, this book can be tough to read at times. If you love moving stories that are rooted in truth, no matter how ugly that truth might be, you will want to read The Nickel Boys. If you are a fan of Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad, this book is a must read. If you liked the movie “Shawshank Redemption”, this book is for you.
If you have difficulty reading troubling stories, especially those involving children, this book isn’t for you.
The Nickel Boys is a searing reminder of our not-so-distant past, and a story we should never forget.
The long string of horrors that took place at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys wasn’t a secret, but it might as well have been. Former students of the Florida reform school had spoken out for years about the brutal beatings that they endured at the hands of sadistic employees, but it wasn’t until 2012, when University of South Florida anthropologists began to uncover unmarked graves on the school’s campus, that the world began to care.
The discoveries weren’t news to the “White House Boys,” a group of men who say they survived brutal assaults by Dozier staffers in a school building known as the White House. The men had raised the alarm for years, but their testimonies were essentially shrugged off. As Colson Whitehead writes in his stunning new novel, inspired by the revelations about the Dozier School, “Plenty of boys had talked of the secret graveyard before, but as it had ever been … no one believed them until someone else said it.”
In Whitehead’s novel, set in the early 1960s, the reformatory in question is called the Nickel Academy, named after a former leader of the school, although some students say it’s really “because their lives weren’t worth five cents.” The novel follows Elwood Curtis, a young man whose dreams of going to college are dashed when he’s sentenced to do time at the school.
Elwood isn’t in need of reform. Abandoned by his parents at a young age and raised by his grandmother, the young man is scrupulously honest; his great loves are reading and education. Forbidden from listening to popular music by his religious grandmother, he wears out the grooves on a record by Martin Luther King Jr., which stokes his interest in the civil rights movement. Elwood is “as good as anyone”; he “bent to a code — Dr. King gave that code shape, articulation, and meaning.”
When Elwood gets the chance to take college classes as a high school student, he jumps at it. But his life is upended when he hitches a ride to his first class with the driver of what turns out to be a stolen car — African Americans weren’t afforded the presumption of innocence in a region still hanging on to Jim Crow, so Elwood is forced to spend the rest of his days as a juvenile at the Nickel Academy.
At the school, Elwood befriends a young man named Turner, who’s harder and more cynical than his new friend. It doesn’t take Elwood long to realize that his original plan to survive Nickel — “he just had to keep doing what he’d always done: act right” — is doomed to failure. After Elwood tries to break up a fight among students, staffers take him, in the middle of the night, to the school’s de facto torture chamber: “The white boys bruised differently than the black boys and called it the Ice Cream Factory because you came out with bruises of every color. The black boys called it the White House because that was its official name and it fit and didn’t need to be embellished.” The savage beating Elwood endures “had him scarred all over, not just his legs,” Whitehead writes. “It had weeviled deep into his personality.”
Whitehead’s description of the brutalities that Elwood and his schoolmates are subjected to are necessarily shocking, and as painful as it is to read about the violence against children, it’s somehow even more sickening to read what it does to the young men’s psyches. Whitehead writes about the cruelties inflicted by the school’s staff with a calm matter-of-factness that actually amplifies the horror; the understated beauty of his writing, combined with the disquieting subject matter, creates a kind of dissonance that chills the reader.
Whitehead has long had a gift for crafting unforgettable characters, and Elwood proves to be one of his best. The young man aspires to take part in the civil rights movement, and certainly knows about the realities of American racism, but is just naïve enough to think that if he behaves and works hard, he’ll be spared the worst of the violence at Nickel. (The violence at Nickel isn’t just limited to African Americans, but that’s cold comfort for the school’s black students: “The white boys didn’t get it as bad as the black boys,” Whitehead writes, “but they were not in Nickel because the world cared overmuch.”)
The Nickel Boys ends with alternating chapters, some chronicling Elwood’s last days at the school and some set in the years after his departure. “That’s what the school did to a boy,” Whitehead writes. “It didn’t stop when you got out. Bend you all kind of ways until you were unfit for straight life, good and twisted by the time you left.” The final pages of the book are a heartbreaking distillation of the story that preceded them; it’s a perfect ending to a perfect novel. The Nickel Boys is a beautiful, wrenching act of witness, a painful remembrance of an “infinite brotherhood of broken boys,” and it proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Whitehead is one of the most gifted novelists in America today.
“ There are small forces that want to keep you down, like other people, and in the face of all those things, you have to stand up straight and maintain your sense of who you are.”
“The Nickel Boys” is the story of Elwood Curtis, a fine and upstanding young black boy, growing up in Tallahassee, Florida during the height of the Jim Crow era. I am embarrassed to admit that I don’t know much about this time in American history — it wasn’t covered in my history classes (which largely stopped at World War II), and even though I was a history major, I focused on Britain and not the United States. In law school, I learned about the constitutional underpinnings of this dark time in US history, but we didn’t delve into the details of what Jim Crow actually was. For me, this was incredibly eye-opening and heartbreaking and nauseating, but it also made me believe — Elwood never loses his faith or his sense of self, and that’s a lesson we can all learn.
The book is divided into three parts: Elwood’s life in Tallahassee before he was sent to Nickel; Elwood’s experience at Nickel; and Elwood’s recollections looking back on Nickel in more modern times – the 1970s, the 1980s, and the 2000s, interspersed with some of his last days at reform school. I loved the way this was set up because we, as readers, were able to get a picture of Elwood’s life and his dreams and goals — equality, college, bettering himself — before it was all blown to hell with going to Nickel.
Knowing that this was based on an actual reform school in Florida, and that schools like this operated around the country (and maybe still operate? I’m afraid to google that), made me feel physically ill. The tails of The White House, Lover’s Lane, “out back” — in addition to the physical and emotional labor these children were forced to do — are horrifying. Whitehead pulls no punches with his descriptions of these activities, and it is sometimes hard to get through.
Throughout everything that happens in the book, Elwood remains Elwood — optimistic, believing in the good of humanity, and striving for everyone around him to be better — and so the things that happen to him feel almost extra heartbreaking. I have to say, there was a big “twist” at the end that I did not see coming (and that prompted the tears in my text above), and it didn’t feel contrived or fake; it totally fit within the story, and it drove the narrative forward in a way that I did not anticipate. The ending was totally satisfying, and as hard as parts of it were to stomach, I was sad that it was over.
Colson Whitehead’s ninth novel deserves all the hype. Though it’s many things—a bildungsroman, a modern slave narrative—it’s first and foremost great fiction with the artifice of a suspenseful plot and a twist-ending. Whitehead uses these elements to explore themes of moral development and identity in the crucible of racial injustice of the Jim Crow South in the 1960s.
When Elwood arrives at the Nickel Reform School for boys, Superintendent Spencer gives him a rundown on the school’s comportment system. The highest behavioral accomplishment—and the only legitimate way to escape Nickel—is to achieve the rank of “Ace”. An Ace, Spencer explains, “listens to the housemen and his house father, does his work without shirking and malingering, and applies himself to his studies. An Ace does not roughhouse, he does not cuss, he does not blaspheme or carry on. He works to reform himself, from sunrise to sunset” (49). Of course, this describes Elwood to a tee. Anyone from his home neighborhood of Frenchtown Tallahassee would describe the teenage devotee of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as studious, eager, honest and winsome. But Nickel is an institution defined by discrimination, a farcically lax education program and corporal punishment with homicidal proclivities, so Elwood, because of the color of his skin, will never be recognized as an ace. Being an African American hitchhiker in a stolen car was enough to get Elwood sentenced as an accessory to theft and diverted from his promising life as a running-start student into Nickel’s gauntlet of the absurd where Elwood must put to the test Dr. King’s philosophy of resistance through decency and love.
Like Dostoevsky here, Whitehead is interested in testing out the durability of an ideal in the snarl of the real world. Having taken to heart King’s message to refuse mediocrity and complaisance, Elwood endeavors to succeed in the corrupt institution’s system. For his efforts, Elwood is first ignored, then beaten. As Elwood suffers for the actions King’s message leads him to take, he revisits and interrogates King’s message for its utility.
To complicate things, Elwood is befriended by Turner—a streetwise runaway doing his second stint at the reform school. Obvious from the outset, Turner is Elwood’s foil. The cynical Turner assures Elwood that Nickel is just existence writ large (81) and that in response to the duplicitous wickedness of people, one must “see how people act, and then you got to figure out how to get around them like an obstacle course” (82).
Rather than all-out rejecting it, Elwood integrates his new friend’s advice into his ethos. Turner arranges for Elwood to join him on a work assignment that will allow him to observe the depths of Nickel’s depravity and graft. In observing however, Elwood becomes an accomplice. To what level will Elwood’s uprightness be sullied by Turner’s pragmatic approach inside a debauched institution? Whitehead runs Elwood’s arc along this line of inquiry. In doing so, Whitehead crafts a character-driven work. No matter how grizzly the external horrors of Nickel get, they merely catalyze the internal development of Whitehead’s characters.
If Elwood’s tenor is morality, Turner’s is identity. Lithe, slick, quick to settle, Turner’s mentality appears more adaptive than Elwood’s in adversity. But it has consequences for the long haul. Post Nickel, Turner must confront the question of who he is. In the novel’s motif of rigged contests and games, Turner often choses to act like another sucker (112) because its comfortable and allows him to enjoy the idiocy of his peers while matching their emotion. He avoids the lofty ideals of resistance. But the price Turner pays for this life of subterfuge is internalized low self-esteem. Turner’s comfortability in uncomfortable situations is described from Elwood’s perspective as “eerie” (57). Elwood is responding to Turner’s uncanny emotional suppression. Turner’s friendship with Elwood forces him to reconsider his identity, defined by his mercenary approach to the vile racism surrounding him. To what degree Turner will take up King and Elwood’s cause of justice is a question which Whitehead’s plot answers in its final pages with a crescendo.
Despite Whitehead’s cinematic story-telling and thematic unity, the feeling that reverberates in a reader of The Nickel Boys is rage in the face of staggering loss. As we’re told in the first sentence, the Nickel boys are trouble even in death. But the trouble Whitehead intends them to be is a trouble to our consciences. In writing The Nickel Boys, Whitehead is a voice for the voiceless thousands of African American boys who, without cause, were brutalized, silenced and condemned to lives of tragic obscurity in and out of white institutions. Based off the Dozier Reform School in Florida, Whitehead’s Nickel becomes a controlling metaphor for the slavery of the past and mass incarceration of the present.