Review: The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

My Quick Take: A sobering examination of how one young man struggles against an unjust system to maintain his dignity and integrity.

“You can hide a lot in an acre, in the dirt.”
As I began Whitehead’s 2019 novel The Nickel Boys, this sentence played repeatedly in my head. I came back to it often as I read. The novel is loosely based on the Dozier School for Boys in Florida, where unmarked graves were found by University of South Florida archeology students. The reform school ran from 1900 to 2011, despite reports of abuse, beatings, torture and likely murder. Seriously: 2011. And I bet lots of people knew what was going on. Not to take away from that singular place, but this immediately brought home the recent Canadian investigations that have found, and continue to find, unmarked graves at the now, shamefully recently closed residential schools for Indigenous children. And people knew. For certain, you can hide a lot, buried in the dirt.

Reading through Whitehead’s novels in order, The Nickel Boys continues the trend of The Underground Railroad as being an easily readable, engaging novel with important themes. Both have been less experimental in tone and depth than his earlier work. Not better or worse, just different. I enjoyed the reading experience, with beautifully drawn characters in Elwood and Turner. Elwood is the main character, a Black teen filled with the utmost integrity and solemn drive to do right. He is a quiet, steadfast social justice advocate who chooses to do the right thing somewhat naively, putting himself in harm’s way. Ironically, it is when he’s minding his own business in the pursuit of education that he runs afoul of a rigged police and justice system, and finds himself a “student” at the Nickel Academy, a school and “rehabilitation” centre for boys. There, he meets Turner, who will become his fast friend, and who is worldly-wise and cynical.

The story is compelling, and the tone is one of dreadful expectation and foreboding. You hope that things will turn out well, that somehow justice will prevail, but deep down you know it’s not that sort of tale. This tension is developed throughout as Whitehead showcases Martin Luther King’s writing and speeches: they are full of determination and hope, and galvanise a young Elwood. They make him idealistic and hopeful, and I felt that way too. Elwood listens to MLK’s speech, taken from the 1962 LP Martin Luther King at Zion Hill:
‘We must believe in our souls that we are somebody, that we are significant, that we are worthful, and we must walk the streets of life every day with this sense of dignity and this sense of somebody-ness.’ The record went around and around, like an argument that always returned to its unassailable premise, and Dr. King’s words filled the front room of the shotgun house. Elwood bent to a code–Dr. King gave that code shape, articulation, and meaning. There are big forces that want to keep the Negro down, like Jim Crow, and there are small forces that want to keep you down, like other people, and in the face of all those things, the big ones and the smaller ones, you have to stand up straight and maintain your sense of who you are.
However, this is juxtaposed by the reality of the 1960s southern-states America that permeates every part of every person’s life, Black or White. Nickel, like most places, is a microcosm of societal race relations, though on another tier: one lower than the outside world, where boys have been housed because of bad behaviour or bad luck (read: neglect, abandonment or trauma most of the time). Race is ever present, but so are these other social determinants of misfortune.

At Nickel, Elwood still–always–walks the line: Do you put your head down and get by as a bystander; or do you act when your moral soul compels you? Autonomy or subservience. Self-efficacy or learned helplessness. Rebellion or acquiescence. This is the knife edge. Elwood is a moral character in an immoral world, a thing that is at once wonderful and painful to witness. History needed, as we do today, people who will stand up for injustice and civil rights, but that always necessitates sacrifice, and personal sacrifice is on the page here.

In horrid isolation for an infraction, Elwood has time to question his convictions.
“He thought long on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s letter from the Birmingham jail, and the powerful appeal the man composed from inside. One thing gave birth to the other–without the cell, no magnificent call to action. Elwood had no paper, no pen, just walls, and he was all out of fine thoughts, let alone the wisdom and the way with words. The world had whispered its rules to him for his whole life and he refused to listen, hearing instead a higher order. The world continued to instruct: Do not love for they will disappear, do not trust for you will be betrayed, do not stand up for you will be swatted down. Still he heard those higher imperatives: Love and that love will be returned, trust in the righteous path and it will lead you to deliverance, fight and things will change. He never listened, never saw what was plainly in front of him, and now he had been plucked from the world altogether. The only voices were those of the boys below, the shouts and laughter and fearful cries, as if he floated in a bitter heaven.”
Yet, Elwood is still pulled to nobility by Dr. King’s words: We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you.

What can you hide in an acre of dirt? Trauma, pain, wrongdoing, racism, criminality, murder. You can bury the past, the good and the bad. A person can bury their memories under that dirt, and a society can try its best to bury the past too, but buried things have a way of being found. And when it gets dug up, it’s on all of us to take a close look and not turn the other way.


Here’s an article by NPR: Florida's Dozier School For Boys: A True Horror Story. It talks about The Whitehouse Boys, a group of men who were sent there in the 50’s and 60’s and have a role in the novel. 

An excellent brief history of the Dozier School with some pictures, and a discussion of the archeological work happening. This site highlights a history of Florida “through Black eyes,’ with Dr. Marvin Dunn.