I recently watched the film The Hate U Give based on the novel by Angie Thomas. The movie blew me away and I was left kicking myself for not having read the book. What struck me most about the film was how the story of a police shooting of a young African-American man was able to delicately show the multiple sides and multiple facades in the lead up to the shooting and its aftermath. It was powerful and awe inspiring and the book is next on my reading pile. But the book I was reading was Colson Whitehead’s new novel The Nickel Boys.
The Nickel Boys is Colson Whitehead’s first novel since the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winning The Underground Railroad. When I read that it was about two African-American boys sentenced to a brutal reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida I was expecting another powerful and brutal look at America’s dark history. I had to steel myself before being ready to read it and the book sat for two months on my reading pile. Oh to have my time over again. There is not need to steel yourself for this except for the fact you are about to read a new classic. A book as important to our culture as To Kill A Mockingbird. A book that shows how systemic the problems of society are and how difficult the path is for change.
The story follows Elwood Curtis in 1962. Elwood is being raised by his grandmother after his mother and father took off for California. Elwood is an intelligent and responsible young man. He has a job, is enrolled in college and is inspired by the words and teachings he listens to of Martin Luther King. But being in the wrong place at the wrong time lands Elwood at the Nickel Academy, a reform school where beatings and corruption go hand in hand with supposed moral training to make boys into decent men.
Elwood learns the ways of the school hard and fast but the words of Martin Luther King and thoughts of his grandmother keep him together. He befriends fellow inmate Turner, a cynic who knows the only way to survive at The Nickel, and in the outside world, is to keep your head down and don’t attract any unnecessary attention. Turner and Elwood become each other’s Yin and Yang, helping each other get through the days, weeks and months. Until Elwood’s idealism forces him to make a decision. One both will come to regret for decades to come.
This is a searing and deeply moving portrait of two boys trying to survive in a world where the cards are stacked against them but do everything in their power to hold their heads high or keep their heads down. It is powerful and inspiring and it is poignant and bitter. Whitehead keeps the violence and brutality just off stage. You know it is there. You know it is vicious and cruel. You know it is depraved. But this novel is not about how graphic the treatment of these boys is but how systemic hope, dreams and the chance at a good and normal life can be taken away from so many. How future possibilities can be hobbled or simply buried and forgotten about.
This is a book that should be read by everyone. It should be put into every high school student’s hands (along with The Hate U Give). This book is amazing on so many different levels and will stay with me for a very long time.