by Colson Whitehead
Doubleday, 2019, 213 pages, Literary/Historical Fiction
Elwood Curtis is a black, straight-A student who lives in Harlem in the 1960s and loves the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. When an innocent mistake sentences Elwood to the Nickel Academy, a Florida reform school, he quickly learns to rely on a fellow inmate named Turner to learn how to survive in this new environment. It turns out the Nickel Academy isn’t a reform school; it’s a den of horrors, where the staff beat and abuse the students, corrupt officials steal food and supplies, and any boy who resists is likely to never be heard from again. This is the story of how Elwood and Turner learn to cope with their experience in the Nickel Academy, and how it affects the rest of their lives.
The Nickel Boys is a devastating work of fiction that was hard to read at times, but I couldn’t put it down. Part of this is because of the book’s roots in actual history (the Nickel Academy is based on a real school in Florida called the Dozier School for Boys), and part of it is because the characters are incredibly complex and you can’t help but root for them. Elwood has such pure motives, and he always tries to believe the best of people, but time and time again he is disappointed. Turner is much more cynical, and it’s his real-talk that helps Elwood learn to survive in a horrible place, while Elwood’s hopeful spirit possibly allows Turner to move on from the horrors of the Academy once he leaves.
Colson Whitehead recently became the fourth person in history to earn not one, but two Pulitzer Prizes, the second being for this book. This accomplishment is very well earned. This is an important book that’s not to be missed.