Author: Colson Whitehead
Rating: 5 Stars
Dates read: 01 Aug 19 – 04 Aug 19
Publication date: 01 Aug 19
Publisher: Little Brown Book Group UK
Genre(s): Historical Fiction,
Elwood Curtis has taken the words of Dr Martin Luther King to heart: he is as good as anyone. Abandoned by his parents, brought up by his loving, strict and clearsighted grandmother, Elwood is about to enroll in the local black college. But given the time and the place, one innocent mistake is enough to destroy his future, and so Elwood arrives at The Nickel Academy, which claims to provide ‘physical, intellectual and moral training’ which will equip its inmates to become ‘honorable and honest men’.
In reality, the Nickel Academy is a chamber of horrors, where physical, emotional and sexual abuse is rife, where corrupt officials and tradesmen do a brisk trade in supplies intended for the school, and where any boy who resists is likely to disappear ‘out back’. Stunned to find himself in this vicious environment, 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 is naive and worse; the world is crooked, and the only way to survive is to emulate the cruelty and cynicism of their oppressors.
The tension between Elwood’s idealism and Turner’s skepticism leads to a decision which will have decades-long repercussions.
Based on the history of a real reform school in Florida that operated for one hundred and eleven years and warped and destroyed the lives of thousands of children, The Nickel Boys is a devastating, driven narrative by a great American novelist whose work is essential to understanding the current reality of the United States.
*I received an eARC of this book courtesy of Little Brown Book Group UK and NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review*
I don’t quite know where to begin with this book. I don’t tend to get too hung up on a story, a read a book, I enjoy it (most of the time) and then I put it down and move on, reminiscing occasionally on the story or the theme, but nothing much more. Occasionally a book leaves a lasting impression, whether that’s because it was so good, or so bad, whether the subject matter really got to you, or whether it was simply something different to anything you had read before. This book was eye-opening, it was harrowing and heartbreaking, it was eloquent and was simply brilliant.
I had never read anything by Whitehead before, and when I was lucky enough to receive an eARC I was looking forward to the book but unsure of the impact it would have. The first few pages of the book didn’t inspire me or capture me, they seemed mundane and dare I say average. Looking back, getting to know this side of Elwood was essential and relevant and the simplicity of this opening was in stark contrast to the horrors that would lie on for him, his family, and the Nickel boys. Once Mr. Hill was introduced and Elwood’s life turned upside down at The Nickel Academy I was sucked into a world of institutionalised racism, abuse, and the systemic beating of children in every sense of the word and I couldn’t tear myself away.
At points the book was hard and heavy hitting. The author and the narrative voice does not shy away from the content and the horrendous situation these boys find themselves in. The power of the naive voice in comparison to the weary tone that the characters and Elwood has by the end of the novel was a spectacularly simple and effective way of conveying the horrors, the feel, and the battered natures of the children as they changed and were moulded. Whitehead uses simple imagery and manipulation of fear to capture the reader in the same way that the characters are captured in their world, and as much as the content is heavy and hard to read at times, it was impossible not to stick with them and keep reading.
I don’t want to ruin the entire book for you, for there is so much within this book to explore and discover yourself. The ending was the most harrowing and sad kind of predictable. I don’t mean this in a disparaging way, and really believe that although it was the ending I was dreading, it was the ending that the book definitely needed. The ending, combined with the most powerful acknowledgements section I think I have ever read, was fitting and in keeping with the message and tone of the book.
The current political and social climate that is felt in the UK and USA is not one that is pleasant or acceptable, and I think this book carries a hard message regarding racism in our society. Although this is a piece of historical fiction, the Nickel Academy is based on the very real and very horrific Florida School for Boys/Dozier Academy and tells the story of the real voices and really souls who suffered such brutality. The book speaks a truth that is felt in every emotion and every word, and is incredibly powerful. Weaving pieces of reality, from the civil rights movement struggles and speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. and the bus boycotts to the school and it’s horrendous history, the book almost feels like reading a piece of a diary or documentary that has seamlessly weaved together patches of a life story and a place’s history. This mix of fiction and reality drives home and highlights an ugly and all to real message.
I really didn’t think that this book would have had such an impact when beginning it, or even while reading it. In a similar way to my favourite book To Kill a Mockingbird, this book has led to a certain amount of introspection and an amount of respect for how some people’s have fought and still fight against situations and injustices that I cannot fully comprehend. It makes me realise my privileged position, but it achieves this without a level of judgement, with education and awareness, and sharing a story that has to be shared. This has shot into my top 5 books of all time, without a doubt, and was a truly remarkable and memorable read that the world needed right now.