In Colson Whitehead’s “The Nickel Boys,” there are four known ways to leave Nickel Academy, the segregated reform school for boys an hour outside of Tallahassee, Fla.: serving the full term (between six months and a year); a court intervention (the likely result of a family member bribing a judge for their son’s early release); death (which Nickel administrators will attribute to “natural causes”); and escape, which almost always leads to death.
Like the island in William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies,” Nickel is an open-air prison replete with rigorous indoctrination and sadistic punishment. Whitehead, who received the 2016 National Book Award for his novel “The Underground Railroad,” loosely bases Nickel on the infamous Dozier School for Boys, which operated from 1900 to 2011 in Marianna, Fla. He deftly incorporates a few accounts of former Dozier students into the book.
Elmwood Curtis, a bright, upstanding teenager from Frenchtown, the black neighborhood in Tallahassee, would have never imagined that he could end up at a place like Nickel. An overachiever at Lincoln High School, Elwood works diligently at the local tobacco store after school, and minds his grandmother Harriet, the only person who has ever cared for him.
Elwood deems his recording of “Martin Luther King at Zion Hill” the best gift of his life. “The record was almost as good as television. Maybe even better, grander, like the towering screen at the Davis Drive-In.” King’s luminous words play on a continuous loop in Elwood’s mind. He begins to seek out local activists, especially his history teacher, Mr. Hill, and considers joining them at protests and marches.
Harriet is wary of Elwood’s newfound sense of purpose. She has her eye on her grandson’s future, not the South’s unlikely liberation from Jim Crow. “Hard work was a fundamental virtue, for hard work didn’t allow time for marches or sit-ins.”
A fateful mistake changes the course of Elwood’s life before his final year in high school. He’s arrested and sent to Nickel, where he learns, above all else, to tolerate harrowing physical abuse. “The capacity to suffer. Elwood — all the Nickel boys — existed in the capacity.” Duplicity and betrayal erode the Nickel boys’ fragile sense of fraternity. Over time, Elwood becomes as disillusioned and mistrusting as his dorm mates. “There are people who trick you and deliver emptiness with a smile, while others rob you of your self-respect. You need to remember who you are.”
“The Nickel Boys” is a chilling, masterful novel that explores the depths of evil and the resilience of the human spirit. Whitehead’s prose is dazzling, and the narrative’s nimble twist is a swift kick to the solar plexus.
In his darkest hours, Elwood finds a way to maintain his faith in King, in his mission, and in the movement burgeoning across the South. But in the end, he must decide what he values more — relative safety, or freedom. “It was not enough to survive, you have to live.”
Anjali Enjeti’s reviews appear in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Georgia Review and elsewhere. She is vice president of membership for the National Book Critics Circle.
The Nickel Boys
By: Colson Whitehead.
Publisher: Doubleday, 213 pages, $24.95.