The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

“We must believe in our souls that we are somebody, that we are significant, that we are worthful, and we must walk the streets of life every day with this sense of dignity and this sense of somebody-ness.”

– Colson Whitehead, “The Nickel Boys”

Review:

The Nickel Boys is another one of those books with an amazing premise that I just wanted to love and couldn’t. Now, before I go further, I do want to say that Goodreads shows I’m in the minority on this one. So don’t let my three star review drag you down. It might very well be a five star experience for you.

The Nickel Boys follows the story of the young, studious, and naïve Elwood Curtis. After his parents run off to California, Elwood is raised by his grandmother. He spends a good deal of time at the hotel where she works and it is there that he is first met with some of life’s unfair disappointments. Elwood works hard and wins a contest for a set of encyclopedias that a white salesman left behind at the hotel. He takes the set home, and is crestfallen to learn that all but the first volume are blank. Life becomes a bit like that for Elwood; full of possibility until examined further.

When Elwood attempts to further his education with college courses, he becomes the victim of a terrible misunderstanding and is sent to The Nickel Academy, a reform school teeming with a plethora of horrors for Elwood and his fellow classmates. Physical, sexual, and psychological abuse runs rampant. Elwood remembers the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Junior’s words, “throw us in jail, and we will still love you.” But how can one practically live those words in Elwood’s reality? Is it foolish to be idealistic and optimistic in such a world?

In the novel, Elwood’s attitude is contrasted by that of his roommate Turner, a cynical trouble maker who is working through his second stint at Nickel. After the point where Elwood arrives at Nickel Academy, the timeline of the novel flashes to the future where we see an older Elwood recall his experiences with Turner, who becomes a friend. Who will influence whom? How can the boys survive to adulthood and a begrudging freedom?

As I said, the premise of this novel is fantastic. It is based on the Arthur G. Dozier school for boys, where the bodies of 55 students were discovered in a secret graveyard. The school had a reputation for abusing its students, and now evidence points that this abuse extended to the murder of several students by staff members. It’s a horrifying reality and this book does a fantastic job of capturing the horror.

Unfortunately, the way this story is written made it difficult for me to connect with Elwood and Turner as characters. Some parts of the book were actually boring. I couldn’t seem to find an emotional connection and the writing felt clinical. I might as well have read a wikipedia debrief on the subject, for all the disconnection I felt with the characters.

This is the second book that I’ve read by this particular author and I seem to have had similar disappointments with both. I think I must not connect emotionally with his writing for some reason. I wish I did, because the idea of this story is excellent. The twist had the potential to be phenomenal if I had cared more for the characters beyond just the horror of the plot. Sadly, I don’t believe the execution lived up to the idea of this story.

“Like justice, it existed in theory.”

– Colson Whitehead, “The Nickel Boys”

Pros:

  • a compelling synopsis
  • an unexpected ending
  • Pulitzer Prize and Orwell Prize winner

Cons:

  • I felt detached from the characters. Parts of Elwood’s journey even bored me because I had no emotional investment.
  • The present timeline felt like a series of disjointed flash-forwards because they were not introduced into the story until later.

Rating:

  • ⭐⭐⭐

“The boys could have been many things had they not been ruined by that place. Doctors who cured diseases or perform brain surgery, inventing shit that saves lives. Run for president. All those lost geniuses – sure not all of them were geniuses, Chickie Pete for example was not solving special relativity – but they had been denied even the simple pleasure of being ordinary. Hobbled and handicapped before the race even began, never figuring out how to be normal.”

– Colson Whitehead, “The Nickel Boys”

Recommended For:

  • seekers of essential fiction on the Black experience in America
  • readers of racially concious YA literature looking to break into more adult oriented literature

Books to Read if You Loved The Nickel Boys:

Let’s Discuss! (Pick a question and drop a comment with your reply!)

  • Do you have an author or a story that you really wish you connected to or enjoyed?
  • What are some ways that justice still exists only “in theory”, as the author states?
  • Is it essential to read from perspectives that are not our own?

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