WHY I CHOSE IT: ‘The Nickel Boys’ is the latest release from Colson Whitehead. I was excited to read the African American author’s latest novel because I enjoyed his previous book, ‘The Underground Railroad’, which won the Pulitzer Prize.
THE PLOT: ‘The Nickel Boys’ centres around the character of Elwood Curtis, a young boy sent to the Nickel Academy, a harsh reformatory school for boys in the 1960’s. Elwood exemplifies the type of black boy we don’t see on TV or in the media very often. Elwood is smart, quiet and thoughtful. He is tentatively involved in the civil rights movement, but wants to keep his head down and focus on getting into college. However, when he’s caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, he is sent to the Nickel Academy instead of jail. Based on the real-life Florida School for Boys, you can imagine the beatings and torture that take place. I won’t ruin the plot but as we see a variety of young black males incarcerated for a variety of reasons, this novel showcases different features of the African-American experience. Interestingly, the author also chose to intersperse chapters from the point-of-view of Elwood after he has left the Academy, looking back on his experiences. This enables the reader to see the struggles of forging an identity for oneself and building a life after trauma.
MY RATING: This book receives four and a half stars because I thought the author did a great job weaving modern day issues into a historical context. The use of Elwood’s admiration for Dr King, contrasted with the realities of his circumstances, highlights issues of when to speak out and when to hide in the face of oppression. My only criticism, despite the lack of female characters in the novel, is the lack of resolution of the storyline concerning Elwood’s parents.
FAVOURITE QUOTE: “The encyclopedias are empty. There are people who trick you and deliver emptiness with a smile, while others rob you of your self respect. You need to remember who you are.” P.25