“Even in death the boys were trouble.”

from The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead

By David R. Altman

One of the most remarkable books published in the past year is Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys.

If you recall, Whitehead wrote The Underground Railroad three years ago—a book which won the author both a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award.

The Nickel Boys is getting great reviews. The New Republic raved "The Nickel Boys is fiction, but it burns with outrageous truth."

Whitehead’s latest offering is a deeply moving story about a reform school for young men in their late teens and early twenties in segregated 1960’s Florida.

Florida’s Dozier School for Boys (fictionalized as Nickel Academy in this book) was a real place, near Tampa, opening in the early 1900’s and operated until 2011. It was at that time that an investigation unveiled the sickening truth about both the school and its staff.

Whitehead wrote a piercing story about the brutal treatment—both physical and sexual abuse—that occurred at the Nickel school.

And it was just not abuse that occurred at the school. The sickening truth is that The University of South Florida (USF), working with the state in the Dozier investigation, discovered some 55 graves on school grounds by 2012. And it’s not over—as USF continued to identify potential grave sites as recently as March of this year.

This intense and unforgettable book will make you realize the sorts of embedded racism that contaminated the institutions of the Jim Crow south.

This story itself is based around the character of a young man named Elwood who was sent to the school because he unknowingly hitched a ride in a car with a convict. A young man with high ideals and who was inspired by Martin Luther King Jr., Elwood entered the Nickel school with the plan to simply keep his head down and serve out his time.

That did not happen, as this painfully graphic passage shows:

“The leather slapped across the ceiling before it came down on your legs, to tell you it was about to come down, and the bunk springs made noise with each blow. Elwood held on to the top of the bed and bit into the pillow but he passed out before they were done, so when people asked later how many licks he got, he didn’t know.”

The isolation of the school and the conspiracy among its staff to keep a positive public reputation led state regulatory officials to rubber stamp its efforts during annual inspections.

Elwood made some friends while he was there—but the book describes the nature of the students/inmates. Colson writes:

“The cast of boys came in and out. Elwood got to know some white kids he wouldn’t have met otherwise. Wards of the state, orphans, runaways who’d lit out to get away from mothers who entertained men for money or to escape rummy fathers who came into their rooms in the middle of the night.”

Elwood was raised by his grandmother, who came to visit him in the school, but her grandson kept from her the secrets that went on inside Nickel. Whitehead writes:

“When his grandmother came to visit, he couldn’t tell her what he saw when Dr. Cooke removed the dressings and he walked the cold tile to the bathroom…he knew his grandmother’s heart would not be able to take it.”

In an NPR interview, Whitehead said this book was difficult for him to write—and it came at a difficult time in his life.

“This book was hard because I was depressed. This book was hard. I was broke and depressed,” said Whitehead, who was working at the time writing articles for 35 cents a word.

Whitehead, a Harvard graduate whose wife is a literary agent, grew up in Manhattan. He is the author of nine books.

The Nickel Boys is a difficult book to read. The abuse is repugnant and the dialogue holds nothing back.

However, it’s an important book that reminds us that, when it comes to institutional racism, things are seldom as they seem.

David R. Altman writes about books and writers. He is a member of the American Academy of Poets and the National Books Critic Circle.

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