Whitehead does what the best novelists do: he makes us reconsider what we see around us through his imagination and empathy.
Colson Whitehead knows how to use history. John Henry Days, though now overlooked, established him in 2001 as a literary force as he blended contemporary concerns with our use of the past and our mythology. Fifteen years later, the fantastical historical fiction of The Underground Railroad brought Whitehead a string of awards, highlighted by his Pulitzer Prize. With The Nickel Boys, Whitehead bounces between the past and the present, creating a sense of persistent injustice. This time, he does it on a small scale, keeping the narrative personal and letting his characters almost casually bring institutional horror to the fore.
Much of the novel takes place in the 1960s in the Nickel Academy, a fictional version of the Dozier School for Boys, a real “reform school” that became known for the violence—including rape and murder—perpetrated against its inmates. Whitehead takes us into the institution via Elwood Curtis, a good kid destined for college and a bright future until he gets arrested for being black while hitchhiking. Elwood’s vision primarily comes from a record he had of Martin Luther King at Zion Hill. He has hope. He has plans. Neither fit in well at the Nickel Academy.
The boys Elwood lives with each have different approaches. Some keep their heads down and shut up, hoping to endure long enough to leave. Some employ physical dominance to rule their cage. Others simply turn cynical, playing the best they can at an evil game, working the system as needed. Elwood, in an attempt to “make the best of it,” decides he’ll work on his education, be industrious and be a good kid who can get out quickly. It doesn’t matter. The system is designed to break its residents. Like a twisted version of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”, the rules are made up and the points don’t matter.
And the rules, inevitably, lead to violence. Whitehead’s great restraint adds to the terror of the book. We find the sexual violence mostly in allusions, and even the present physical violence doesn’t get the graphic treatment it could (though Whitehead doesn’t shy from how sickening it is). The whole order of the institution is violence. The adults blend sadism and racism in a dehumanizing project; the kids hurt each other; the world runs on fear and pain.
The Nickel story itself would be memorable, but Whitehead’s ability to integrate narrative from the present creates something special. We see the fallout from Elwood’s time in the institution, but in small ways. We see the life he builds, the closeness he maintains, the struggle with the past. We can’t quite understand it until near the end of the book, when Whitehead makes some vital and surprising connections. The character development keeps the book from didacticism; Whitehead’s skill keeps it from treacle.
With the interwoven narratives, the book’s mid-century setting becomes that much more relevant. It could be the start of Jim Crow, the peak of the Civil Rights Era or last week’s headlines (assuming we’d actually have to look a whole week back). With The Nickel Boys, Whitehead does what the best novelists do: he makes us reconsider what we see around us through his imagination and empathy. He does go for the easy shots, but he does make us look at what we’d rather ignore. By grounding the social and historical aspects in a deeply personal story, he makes sure that disquieting observation holds as much emotional meaning as it does academic.