Though he’s abandoned the magical realism of his 2017 Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning novel, The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead continues to confront racial prejudice in American life. Based on a true story, The Nickel Boys is a blistering exposé of bigotry in a Florida reform school in the 1960s, when the modern civil rights movement was just beginning to awaken the entire nation to the justice of black Americans’ demands for equality.
Nurtured by a loving grandmother after his parents abandoned him at age 6, and with ambitions fueled by recordings of speeches by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., 17-year-old Elwood Curtis of Tallahassee, Florida, has his eyes set on college as the first step on the road to a consequential life. But after he has the bad luck to hitch a ride with a car thief, he finds himself confined to the Nickel Academy for Boys, a rigidly segregated reform school that’s home to some 600 students.
Almost as soon as he arrives at Nickel, Elwood beholds a nightmare world of deprivation and cruelty. Even modest transgressions by Elwood and his fellow black students are punished by savage beatings at a building called the White House, where a giant industrial fan is used to mask the screams of the victims, members of an “infinite brotherhood of broken boys.” Some students face even worse mistreatment, their brief lives ending with burial in a secret campus graveyard and fabrications about their “disappearances.”
As Whitehead reveals in a sympathetic but clear-eyed narrative, Elwood’s idealism is subjected to the ultimate test when it confronts the school’s relentless racism. Determined to expose the misdeeds of Nickel’s brutal administrators, Elwood makes a fateful choice that lays the groundwork for an emotional plot twist in the novel’s concluding pages.
Whitehead pulls no punches in telling this heartbreaking story. The Nickel Boys offers optimists an opportunity to be encouraged by how far the United States has come in the past 60 years in addressing racial inequality, but a careful reading of this disquieting novel leaves one with the feeling that we still have much further to go.