In 2016, Colson Whitehead won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for his novel, Underground Railroad. At the apex of his career, it could be a downhill slide from there – but Colson Whitehead just keeps getting better. In the midst of writing a crime novel, Whitehead read the story of the Arthur G. Dozier school, a juvenile detention facility in Florida where dozens of brutalized and murdered bodies of young African American men were found in unmarked graves. He immediately set aside his crime novel and began research for his new novel, The Nickel Boys.
Elwood Curtis is a brainy, hard-working high school student living with his grandmother during the 1960’s at the height of the civil rights movement. He listens relentlessly to an LP of Martin Luther King’s speeches and is a fervent believer in King’s philosophy of non-violent protest and believes that he is living on the cusp of a big change; a good change; a turn toward justice for all. He is given the opportunity to take college classes at a local “colored college” across town, but his bike is in disrepair so he decides to hitchhike his first day of class. He accepts a ride from a black man driving a shiny, new Plymouth Fury, which just happens to be stolen. Guilty by association, Elwood is sent to serve time at the Nickel Academy.
Soon after arriving, Elwood meets Turner, a street-wise young man who does not share Elwood’s belief that justice will prevail. He has seen things at the academy that give him nightmares. He warns Elwood about the White House, a building on the property where boys are taken and never seen from again.
“Your family asks what happened and they tell them you ran away,” Turner said.
“It’s not how it’s supposed to be.” Elwood replies.
“Don’t no one care about supposed to.”
But as Elwood tries to stay under the radar, he feels himself fading away and he decides to take one last chance to report what’s happening at the Nickel Academy to the authorities. “It was not enough to survive. You have to live.”
Colson Whitehead has written just the right book at the right time. The Nickel Boys is a harrowing and heartbreaking novel about a broken criminal justice system and the continuing battle for equality. I highly recommend it for fans of Lord of the Flies, Invisible Man, and The New Jim Crow.