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BookMark: "The Nickel Boys" By Colson Whitehead

Savita Iyer reviews "The Nickel Boys" by Colson Whitehead.

There is a point in Colson Whitehead’s novel, “The Nickel Boys,” when you think—when you hope—that things will turn out for the better for his protagonist, Elwood Curtis. Elwood is living in New York, he has a job, an apartment, and a girlfriend. He has developed plans to start his own moving company. At that point, you begin to have hope that all the atrocities and injustices Elwood endured—including the years he spent being abused at the Nickel Academy, a reform school in Florida, were not his undoing, even as you know that probably isn’t the case.  

“The Nickel Boys” is Whitehead’s ninth novel and is based on the true story of a 1960s reform school for boys. Elwood should have never been at Nickel. Before arriving there, things were going well for him. He was a serious, hardworking, and cerebral young man. His grandmother had shielded him from most external forces. For example, she got him a job at a store to keep him busy, and kept him away from the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, which she feared would inspire him to join the movement and put him in danger.

Elwood was destined to be a college graduate but, as fate would cruelly have it, while he was enroute to pursue a degree in English literature everything fell apart. Unbeknownst to him, Elwood hitches a ride with a person driving a stolen car. Elwood is innocent, but he is also a young, black man in a southern state in the 1960s. Need I say more?

Against his will, Elwood becomes a member of the “brotherhood of broken boys” at the Nickel Academy, an institution designed to “improve the character” of deviant young men. It is a place where vicious punishment is meted out freely and, in keeping with time and place, along racial lines.

Whitehead’s quiet and elegant rendering of the brutality black boys endure underscores the point that in such a place as Nickel, Elwood’s upbringing, accomplishments, aspirations and innocence mean absolutely nothing. For Elwood, who he was and what he could have been fade as time goes by and torments increase. Even after Elwood makes it out, Whitehead’s recounting of his life post-Nickel makes it plain that absolute escape from such situations is never really possible.  

“The Nickel Boys” may be set in the 1960s but it leaves the modern reader to face an uncomfortable question: How much have things really changed for young, African American men who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time? Whitehead—a master chronicler of the African American experience throughout the history of this country—is also a master storyteller, with the ability to craft unexpected endings. The finale to “Nickel Boys” is one that no reader could anticipate, but with at least two members of that Brotherhood of Broken Boys finding vindication from their accusations, it does offer some consolation.

Reviewer Savita Iyer is the senior editor of Penn State’s alumni magazine, The Penn Stater.