There are books that advertise they’re going to be a difficult read and then there are those that sucker-punch you when you least expect it. Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys doesn’t need to hide behind a sunny premise to sucker-punch you in the midst of a story that never pretends to be anything other than heartbreaking.
Based on true events from the Dozier School for Boys, a reform school in the Florida panhandle with a reputation for brutality, The Nickel Boys follows Elwood, a bright Black teen in 1960s Tallahassee whose future derails when he hitches a ride to his college class in a car that happens to be stolen. Although he committed no crime, he is “let off easy” by being sentenced to a year in the Nickel School for necessary reformation. Elwood decides to follow the rules to a T, to stand up for the weaker boys, and everything else he thinks will help him follow in the footsteps of his civil-rights hero Dr. Martin Luther King would do. But at Nickel, rules are capricious, and nobility disrupts the status quo.
Another delinquent, Turner, does all he can to keep Elwood from getting a target on his back through his naivety. He certainly can’t keep Elwood from the bloody consequences of his own actions. Turner’s well-earned cynicism and Elwood’s Teflon idealism push and pull against each other, even as Nickel wears them both down with beatings, blatant racism, and a thinly veiled murder of a classmate. In the future, Elwood grapples with how Nickel and his time since have changed him—both the scars and the resolution that helped him endure there and when he finally got away.
Whitehead is consistently fantastic, even if many of his subjects require a white-knuckle grip on the book to get through the more difficult parts. I considered giving up on this halfway when the weight of it all got too heavy. I don’t think there’s shame in that, because just as much as reading is an experience for connection and education and thought, everyone’s got their own limits. Here, though, Whitehead rewards the persevering reader with another, sneakier weight that is somehow both bruising and healing at the same time. It’s a small turn, but one that flips many things on their heads, and left me with a far different perception of the story as a whole than if I had assumed the ending and moved on.
This one made it onto my TBR when it came out in 2019, but I bumped it to the top after reading We Carry Their Bones: The Search For Justice at the Dozier School for Boys. That nonfiction book tells the true story of a University of South Florida anthropologist (who and whose work is referenced in the present-day chapters of The Nickel Boys) who recovered dozens of unmarked or incorrectly marked graves at what used to be the Dozier School before the land was sold for development. A review of that book will come as soon as Harper Collins acts like a grown-up and resolves the strike they’ve exacerbated by not coming to the negotiating table for months.
I’m not sure I can recommend the one-two punch that is reading the nonfiction and then the fiction. We Carry Their Bones doesn’t shy away from the truth of what happened at Dozier, so I struggled knowing exactly what was coming for Elwood, especially in his happy and promising times before his unjust arrest. Then again, I’m not sure I can recommend reading The Nickel Boys and then We Carry Their Bones; Whitehead illustrates the emotional side of things with the deftness of a scalpel and the heft of a sledgehammer. I imagine reading We Carry Their Bones second would mean all of those impassioned but relatively unemotional facts would cut much deeper.
Though difficult, The Nickel Boys sheds light on an issue that may be in the past but whose roots still survive—and thrive—today. History only gathers dust if the present refuses to repeat it, and we can’t avoid history if we don’t know it—even if that education is a hard one.