A Real House of Racist Horrors Makes For Great Fiction
From the atrocities of slavery to the horrific realities of the Jim Crow South, award-winning author Colson Whitehead delivers a literary one-two powerful punch with his latest novel as follow-up to masterful book, "The Underground Railroad." This 2019 release is very different in style, structure and elements, but equally impressive book from a more contemporary era. “The Nickel Boys” takes place in Florida during the Jim Crow era. In it, he does a fictionalized version of the life of two boys in a reform school that is more about imprisonment and racism than actual reform or education. Although the name of the school has been changed, it did exist. And the real life recently revealed atrocities and murders took place there, served as inspiration for the novel. The main character, Elwood, who, after abandoned by his parents, spends most of his childhood with his grandmother in a predominantly black community of Tallahassee, Florida. Throughout his youth he is kind, quiet and obedient. He is also smart, which does not go unnoticed by one of his teachers, and his boss, the owner of a small tobacco shop. They, along with his grandmother, are thrilled that he gets an opportunity to accept a scholarship to attend a nearby black college a year or two ahead of the traditional timeline. In the months leading up to his departure, he follows the progress of the Civil Rights movement and its leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He is in awe of his teachings and social impact, and he is excited to be closer to “the action” when at college.
It is en route to the school that Elwood, and the readers, are reminded that life is not fair, especially for a young black man in the Jim Crow South. While hitching a ride to the college, he and the driver are stopped by police because they were black while driving a nice car. Despite Elwood's age and obvious innocence, they both end up arrested for car theft. Elwood was sentenced to several years in Nickel Academy- far from college and his dreams of academia, and even further from his grandmother, the only family he had. The harsh environment of Nickel Academy initially proves especially challenging for a sweet soul like Elwood. When he tries to do the “right thing” and help someone else, he is beaten and stored in solitary confinement. Upon release and after being befriended by classmate, Turner, he learns, for a period at least, to keep his head down and play by the rules. All the while, his hope for freedom and a better life, is through retrieving the teachings of Dr. King that he committed to memory, and obtaining freedom for his fellow inmates. As such, Elwood yearns to have the reform school exposed for what it really is.
King described “agape” as a divine love operating in the heart of man. A selfless love, an incandescent love, the highest there is. He called upon his Negro audience to cultivate that pure love for their oppressors, that it might carry them to the other side oft the struggle. Elwood tries to get his head around it, now that it was no longer the abstraction floating in his head last spring. It was real now. The capacity to suffer. Elwood- all the Nickel boys- existed in the capacity. Breathed in it, ate in it, dreamed in it. That was their lives now. Otherwise they would have perished. The beatings, the rapes, the unrelenting winnowing of themselves. They endured.
Throughout the novel, which is a surprisingly brief 200 plus pages, Whitehead commands an assured voice. He has fully drawn characters whose psyche and circumstances you sympathize with, empathize for, and champion on. What is not expected, is a wonderful and welcome restraint of which Whitehead craftily incorporates throughout. He could have overwhelmed the reader with intensity and details- rightfully so, understandably so given the subject matter- and still have been appreciated and applauded. Instead, to his credit, Whitehead takes you right to the edge, without pushing you over. His prose and descriptions are nuanced, brief, yet impactful nonetheless. It is the combination of a writer operating at the top of his skills, along with a horrific history and rich fictionalized characters that make "The Nickel Boys" an inspired, essential read.