The Nickel Boys is the third Colson Whitehead book I’ve read. It’s a joy to watch his skill as a writer improve each time. Of course, two of the three won Pulitzer Prizes, so I’m not the only one noticing. And this book evoked a range of emotions from cheers to jeers and tears. I loved the characters even though I hated the place and time they lived in.
Elwood Curtis is a young black teenager, living in Tallahassee, Florida. His grandmother is raising him, since his mom and dad left in search of fortune. And Elwood is a strong student, inspired by the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Unfortunately one wrong move and the Jim Crow era conspires against him. So, he’s sent to a reform school.
The Nickel School is more of a work camp than a school, if truth be told. Elwood learns that the hard way. But he also starts to connect with other kids and find his way. One of his work detail mates is Turner, and their job requires a bit more savvy. While Elwood is book smart, Turner is street smart. And they make a good pair, despite seeing the world from opposite ends of the spectrum.
Whitehead also takes us forward in time, with chapters about Elwood’s adult experiences in New York City. These allow the story to come full circle, as Elwood reckons with his decisions and how Nickel changed him.
Virtual author talk
An independent bookstore near me offers regularly scheduled author events. Of course, now in pandemic times, they’re virtual. Last week I heard Whitehead talk about his writing, read from The Nickel Boys, and also take audience questions. I felt lucky to be there.
One thing he said about Turner and Elwood is his intention to develop their characters with two completely opposite world views. Turner is the pragmatic guy with a primarily hopeless outlook on life. And Elwood is more of an optimist with a hopeful perspective. The contrast between them is the contrast we all face inside ourselves, especially in challenging times. This sounds like a perfect reflection of both this historical era (Jim Crow South) and our current uprising.
In the Q & A section of Whitehead’s talk, he answered my question! Since The Nickel School is based on a real-life place called The Dozier School, I asked if he’d had feedback from the students about his book. The men who’d been at Dozier during the early 60s are now elderly, but Whitehead told about meeting one in particular. This man moved from the South to New York, and settled exactly where Whitehead settled Elwood. In the same time period, as well. It was a story of bookish synchronicity, and how authors find authenticity from research.
Whitehead is an automatic buy author for me. I always learn something and feel genuinely absorbed in his storytelling. Reading books about the Black experience in America is important to me, and his last two books offer that opportunity. Historical fiction, with its emotional punch, is a great way to step outside my own life and learn about another’s.
In The Nickel Boys, Whitehead writes eloquently about the experience of black men. From the risks of doing normal things like walking along the road, to the lifetime consequences of a place like Nickel, I was absorbed in Elwood’s story. Whitehead develops his characters with nuance and a true flavor of both the era and their unique personalities.
I absolutely recommend The Nickel Boys. It’s 200 pages where every word counts, and all of the moments will touch you. When you finish, the effects of the Jim Crow South will seem closer and clearer. Perhaps they’ll make you angry. And they may explain the reasoning behind Black Lives Matter.
Pair with When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrice Khan-Cullors or (as I did) try The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons and an Unlikely Road to Manhood by Ta-Nehisi Coates.