“The Nickel Boys” is Colson Whitehead’s follow-up novel to his much praised, Pulitzer-prize winning novel “The Underground Railroad”. Whitehead appears to have studied and researched the histories of African-Americans in this country, and his newest novel is based upon a kind of reformatory school near Tallahassee, Florida, a product of the Jim Crow South and based upon a real school/story, the horrors of which were uncovered relatively recently–dead bodies of “disappeared” black boys who’d been virtually incarcerated there had recently come to light. The novel also brilliantly addresses the dichotomies between the idealistic Elwood, a fine young man and excellent student, raised by his tough but loving grandmother in Frenchtown, an Afrian-American town near Tallahassee, and Turner, who Elwood meets at The Nickel Academy, whose street smarts, cynicism and anger are in stark contrast to Elwood’s hopes and dreams, fueled by the speeches and sermons of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The exceptionally intelligent and highly motivated Elwood has been given permission to study college-level classes while still in high school in Tallahassee; while hitching a ride there, he’s caught by Southern white cops and he accidentally ends up at Nickel, although he has done absolutely nothing wrong: The Jim Crow south was notorious for such arbitrary, whimsical abuses of the law and of their power. Of course, black and white boys at Nickel are segregated, and whatever minimum niceties the white boys receive are denied from the blacks. Beatings and sexual abuse are common, and a building in the back of the “school” is used to torture and often murder recalcitrant boys of color (this building came to light recently with the discovery of the mass grave behind it, no doubt leading to Whitehead’s writing of this novel).
Turner and Elwood make brilliant contrasts, as they attempt to adjust to the arbitrary ways and violence of the teachers/masters/administrators of the school. Both find themselves chosen for work outside the school in the white part of the community, where they’ve privy to a vast scheme of stealing of food meant for their school, which they find themselves delivering (as “gifts” from the school administration) to the leading families of the white part of town. Elwood, who believes that loving one’s enemy will win out over the hatred embedded in the Jim Crow South, documents all of this stealing and corruption, and eventually manages to slip this document to visiting authorities at the school one day. Turner, aware of his friend’s hopeful but naive beliefs, finds Elwood locked up and tortured; no doubt Elwood’s about to be taken to “that building”, tortured and killed.
The descriptions of daily life in this school and how students attempt to survive are some of the best passages in the novel. Since Whitehead tends to write in an understated style, the horrors he describes throughout the novel seem to have greater force and power. The systemic abuses and racial hatreds are so embedded in the system, as is the greed and corruption of the town’s “best citizens”, that Turner and Elwood manage to escape, something rarely done with success. The scene in the novel in which the school’s racist whites find these two is completely brilliant; the reader will have one of those surreal moments where it’s not totally clear what’s happened, and which of both of these two escapees will make it out of there.
Turner is the escapee who gets himself out of the area, out of the state, and eventually up North to New York, where he gets himself hired by a moving company, and eventually starts his own business and finds a wonderfully loving woman with whom to share his life; he’s living under an assumed name (don’t want to reveal too much plot here) but decides to return to the school for its 50th reunion, long after the truth of Nickel Academy has come out in the media. When he stays in a formerly all white hotel, where his friend Elwood once worked in the kitchen (no blacks allowed in the hotel in the old days), the reader is privy to an incredibly moving scene.
That Elwood’s great faith in the rhetoric of King and his belief that love will conquer hate is painfully in evidence, as is Turner’s awareness that only toughness and cynicism may win the day, though Turner, too, will partly survive because Elwood’s philosophies have become internalized within him,too, so that King’s messages come to Turner via Elwood. Whitehead’s own ambivalence about the messages of hope which ruin Elwood’s life but saves Turner are some of the great complexities of this very moving novel, written gently and lightly to highlight the horrors within it. Colson Whitehead is becoming one of America’s most important younger writers, and “The Nickel Boys” only continues to showcase his immense talents.