Book review: Colson Whitehead's The Nickel Boys is a taut, grim look at abuse in a boys' reform school

Award-winning author Colson Whitehead writes about a more recent injustice in America's history in The Nickel Boys.
Award-winning author Colson Whitehead writes about a more recent injustice in America's history in The Nickel Boys.PHOTO: FLEET

FICTION

THE NICKEL BOYS

By Colson Whitehead

Fleet/ Paperback/ 215 pages/ $29.95 / Books Kinokuniya / 4 stars

When a team of forensic anthropologists excavate the grounds of an old reform school, they dig up the graves of more than 50 boys. Bit by bit, the dirt releases long-buried horrors: fractured bones, cratered skulls, ribcages blasted with buckshot. The boys who survived, now haunted old men, try to work out how to tell their stories.

Pulitzer Prize-winning American author Colson Whitehead, fresh from the acclaim heaped upon his 2016 slavery novel The Underground Railroad, turns his gaze upon a more recent injustice in America's history.

Set in the 1960s, The Nickel Boys is a taut, brutal reimagining of the atrocities behind the news. It is based on the real case of the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Florida, where a century of abuse came to light only after it shut in 2011. According to the team that excavated the site, three times as many black students died and were buried at Dozier as white students.

The story is told through the eyes of Elwood, a bright teenager who, despite having been abandoned by his parents and raised single-handedly by his grandmother, seems like he might do all right. In fact, he is on his way to a college class when he hitchhikes with the wrong man and ends up arrested for no reason.

Elwood is sent to the reform school of Nickel, where his notion that he might be worthy of personhood - fed by the words of activist Martin Luther King Jr and writer James Baldwin - comes up sharply against the sheer wall of Nickel's cruelty.

In Nickel, as Elwood learns, kindness can get you flogged so hard that your clothing is embedded into your skin, while an industrial fan overhead muffles your cries. Pride or carelessness can get you killed. Better to keep your head down, he is told by his friend Turner, a loosely amoral cynic.

The penalty for speaking up is so unthinkable that boys sit across from their families during visits saying nothing, while in their heads they scream, "Look at what they did to me, look at what they did to me."

 

Whitehead writes with a stripped-down, dead-eyed restraint that renders the happenings at Nickel so much grimmer than any flair. Violence at Nickel is horrific, but also routine. Over it all hangs an overwhelming inequality that sets a whole race of people behind, where a single tiny misstep is enough to irrevocably ruin a life.

The novel may be set in the 1960s, but its story is powerfully immediate. Whitehead knows his privilege: successful and safe, he can speak up for those who cannot. Artlessly and without fanfare, he reminds those of us who can to honour that privilege.

If you liked this, read: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward (Bloomsbury, 2018, $18.95, Books Kinokuniya), in which Jojo, a sensitive mixed-race teenager living in backwoods Mississippi, goes on a road trip with his little sister and his drug addict mother to pick up his father from the notorious prison Parchman Farm.