Fleet Press 16th July 2019
Elwood Curtis knows he is as good as anyone – growing up in 1960s Florida, he has taken the words of Dr Martin Luther King to heart. He is about to enrol in the local black college, determined to make something of himself. But given the time and the place, one innocent mistake is all it takes to destroy his future. Instead of embarking on a college education, Elwood arrive at the Nickel Academy, a segregated reform school claiming to provide an education which will equip its inmates to become ‘honourable and honest men’.
In reality, the Nickel Academy is a nightmarish upside-down world, where any boy who resists the corrupt depravity of the authorities is likely to disappear ‘out back’. Elwood tries to hold on to Dr King’s ringing assertion: ‘Throw us in jail, and we will still love you.’ But Elwood’s fellow inmate and new friend Turner thinks Elwood naïve and worse; the world is crooked, and the only way to survive is to emulate the cruelty and cynicism of their oppressors.
When Elwood’s idealism and Turner’s scepticism collide, the result has decades-long repercussions. The Nickel Boys is a devastating, driven novel by a great American writer whose clear-sighted and humane storytelling continues to illuminate our current reality.
An absolutely incredible read that has sat on my shelf for far to long. Whitehead uses fiction to tell the story of a boys reform school, inspired by the story of the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida. With the central character of Elwood, a conscientious and hopeful, black boy doing his best to succeed in a time and place where the odds are against him. Inspired by Dr Martin Luther King, Elwood tries his best to heed his words and go forward with love in a world driven by hate. One incident detonates all of this and Elwood gets sent to the Nickel School for boys, one incident in which he was innocent, but black.
The story was sad from the outset, not just because I knew where it was going but in Elwood, Whitehead created such an inspiring character, a boy with a strong moral compass driven to do what is right, and striving for equality, with a hero in Dr King. What happens at the reform school is sadly a well documented story, told too many times and covered up just as frequently, as boys in need of care are grotesquely abused in the name of discipline and rehabilitation.
The story is told over several time periods, with the majority of the story set in the reform school, although we meet Elwood prior to his arrest and as revealed in the prologue as an adult. The book, despite a challenging subject matter, is engaging and highly readable with me reading it over a matter of hours, struggling to put it down.
A special friendship was created between Elwood and Turner and it’s one that will stay with me for a while. Essentially this is a story of survival in the vilest conditions in a world of segregation and disadvantage because of skin colour, but a story of hope and inspiration as well. Highly recommended by me and likely to be one of my top reads of 2020.
About the Author
Colson Whitehead is the Sunday Times bestselling author of The Underground Railroad, The Noble Hustle, Zone One, Sag Harbor, The Intuitionist, John Henry Days, Apex Hides the Hurt and one collection of essays, The Colossus of New York. A Pulitzer Prize winner, a National Book Award winner and a recipient of MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships, he lives in New York City.