D. St. Germain's Reviews > The Nickel Boys

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
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it was amazing
bookshelves: literary-fiction, jim-crow, us-history

(revised review - 5 stars)

“It was quite a sight, all the boys, big and small, hustling in unified purpose, paint on their chins, the chucks wobbling as they ferried the cans of Dixie.”

As part of their “community service,” The Nickel Boys paint buildings Dixie White, while avoiding sadistic and potentially fatal beatings delivered via a leather strap named Black Beauty. The boys, “cheaper than a dime-a-dance and you got more for your money, or so they used to say,” are in segregated juvenile detention in Jim Crow Florida for crimes of malingering, mopery, and incorrigibility, just as the generations before them had served time for vagrancy, changing employers without permission, and “bumptious contact,” i.e. bumping into a white person or failing to step off the sidewalk to let a white person pass.

The goal at Nickel Academy is to earn points and status rankings. However, the rulebook for points and status rankings has never been seen, because “like justice, it existed in theory.” Achieving status would mean the interred might get discharged from the Academy, fully “reformed,” rather than end up in an unmarked grave on the property.

The main character, Elwood, is a serious and squeaky-clean young man who gets straight As and saves his report cards for the day they desegregate Fun Town, an amusement park in Atlanta advertising throughout the South that children with a perfect report card were guaranteed free admission (leaving out the implied “whites only” in the ad). He listens to a record of a Martin Luther King Jr. on repeat. With Civil Rights marches happening around him (it is 1962) and moved by the work of King, he strives to be a man of dignity. Still in high school, he’s chosen to attend college courses at Melvin Griggs Technical, the “colored” college just south of town. On the first day of classes, he accepts a ride from a stranger to get to Griggs, but the ride leads him straight to the Nickel Academy campus instead when it ends up the car is stolen. His entry beating to the Academy puts him in the school’s infirmary for weeks.

The Nickel Boys is based on the accounts of the real life Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida, once the largest training and reform school in the country. Hundreds of boys died while wards of the state at Dozier, including from gunshot wounds, blunt force trauma, numerous broken bones, or being locked in solitary confinement when a fire broke out. Archaeology students at the University of South Florida have been working for years to uncover graves, document remains and try to trace them where possible to their families of origin.

The Nickel Boys is a harrowing look at the trauma of juvenile prisons under Jim Crow as told through the fictional experiences of Elwood and his friend Turner. One will make it out and live to tell the tale; he’ll even go on to subconsciously name his business after the highest-level status rank could achieve at Nickel, the level that got you out of the academy: “Ace: out in the free world to make your zigzag way.” As characters, Elwood represents the strain of thought that believes social change is possible, that humans can aspire to and achieve a higher purpose together, while Turner, grounded in the current world, believes it is dumb and mean and one must learn to navigate that.

Readers familiar with the convict leasing system won’t be surprised to find that the boys maintain the homes of those who serve on the board of the Academy in addition to the parks and public spaces of Eleanor, FL. Elwood tries to bring attention to both the corruptions and living conditions at the Nickel Academy, but “the country was big, and its appetite for prejudice and depredation limitless, how could they keep up with the host of injustices, big and small. This was just one place. A lunch counter in New Orleans, a public pool in Baltimore that they filled with concrete rather than allow black kids to dip a toe in it. This was one place, but if there was one, there were hundreds, hundreds of Nickels and White Houses scattered across the land like pain factories,” and it would take another 50 years before the truth would come out about what had happened to young men there.


Caption: From Library of Congress: Orphaned children and juvenile offenders could be bought to serve as laborers for white planters in many Southern states from 1865 until the 1940s. (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection, LC-D428-850)

This is a "does the moral arc of the universe bend towards justice? Or not?" kind of book, and Whitehead himself doesn't come down on either side of the argument, rather showing how reality and aspirations weave and wobble between extremes, like Obama's remarks the day after Trump's election - "the path that this country has taken has never been a straight line. We zig and zag and sometimes we move in ways that some people think is forward and others think is moving back." Indeed, as Whitehead shows, it can be hard to be idealistic in the face of so much ugly history. "It was impossible, like loving the one who wanted to destroy you, but that was the message of the movement: to trust in the ultimate decency that lived in every human heart."

The overarching sadness of this book is in the boys' potential, snuffed out. As Whitehead writes, “the boys could have been many things had they not been ruined by that place…. (they were) denied even the simple pleasure of being ordinary. Hobbled and handicapped before the race even began, never figuring out how to be normal.”

The Nickel Boys is an intense take on the justice system in the Deep South during the turning points of the Civil Rights movement, and what that movement meant for individuals, connecting it to both the longer racialized history of the prison system in the South after reconstruction and the results the Civil Rights movement brought about in modern times. (For more on Southern justice after reconstruction, Oshinsky's Worse Than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice is an absolute mind-blower and seminal reading.)

In the end The Nickel Boys is a lot to digest, mostly because the actual history is so heavy.
I had mixed feelings about the seemingly dispassionate voice that Whitehead uses to describe a lot of the boys' experiences; it felt like an emotionally-removed telling of events that were pretty intense, which I found odd, and initially gave it four stars because of that. But Ron Charles convinced me that perhaps this approach was taken to avoid sensationalizing the boys' pain over communicating the facts. In this way it echoes how in New Zealand they've made it a point to not publish the name of or discuss much the man who committed the mass shooting at the Christchurch mosque, to avoid creating a cult of personality around the shooter rather than focus on healing from the atrocity.

At the book's conclusion, the story's survivor, now a successful small businessman, does get to dine at the restaurant his friend had always dreamed of seeing a black person eat in as a child. So while this post-Jim Crow era (and he poses the question - what do we call this period now, with so much unresolved?) hasn’t settled many or even most thorny issues around history and race in America, Whitehead does point to some progress ~ the same progress others point to when they write about Whitehead.
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Reading Progress

April 22, 2019 – Shelved
April 22, 2019 – Shelved as: to-read
June 7, 2019 – Shelved as: literary-fiction
July 3, 2019 – Started Reading
July 6, 2019 – Shelved as: jim-crow
July 6, 2019 – Shelved as: us-history
July 6, 2019 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-10 of 10 (10 new)

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message 1: by Kyra (new) - added it

Kyra Leseberg (Roots & Reads) I've been looking forward to this book for months though I know it will be be gut wrenching. Great review!


message 2: by Libby (new) - added it

Libby Awesome review D. ! I'm putting this one on my TBR list based on your review.


message 3: by Kenny (new)

Kenny Outstanding review.


D.  St. Germain Kenny wrote: "Outstanding review."
Thanks Kenny!


D.  St. Germain Libby wrote: "Awesome review D. ! I'm putting this one on my TBR list based on your review."
Thanks Libby! I look forward to hearing what you think about it.


D.  St. Germain Kyra wrote: "I've been looking forward to this book for months though I know it will be be gut wrenching. Great review!"

Thanks Kyra! Interested to hear what you think.


message 7: by Julie (new)

Julie Nicely reviewed, D. I wonder if the perfect antidote to this somber topic is Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God? It's not only a favorite of mine, but it depicts a story that takes place in an enlightened town in Florida that was, remarkably, filled with black shop owners and black leaders at a time when such opportunities barely existed. Have you read it?


message 8: by Deanna (new)

Deanna Excellent review!!


D.  St. Germain Julie wrote: "Nicely reviewed, D. I wonder if the perfect antidote to this somber topic is Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God? It's not only a favorite of mine, but it depicts a story that takes p..."

Thanks Julie! I read Their Eyes Were Watching God many years ago... but it probably time to revisit it. I didn't have the depth of understanding of the history around it as a teenager. Thanks for the recommendation :)


message 10: by D. (new) - rated it 5 stars

D.  St. Germain Deanna wrote: "Excellent review!!"
Thanks Deanna!


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