Tuesday, 6 August 2019

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead


The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
Published by Fleet on the 16th July 2019.

A 2019 New Release Challenge read and one of my 2019 COYER Summer Hunt reads

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Elwood Curtis has taken the words of Dr Martin Luther King to heart: he is as good as anyone. Abandoned by his parents, brought up by his loving, strict and clearsighted grandmother, Elwood is about to enroll in the local black college. But given the time and the place, one innocent mistake is enough to destroy his future, and so Elwood arrives at The Nickel Academy, which claims to provide 'physical, intellectual and moral training' which will equip its inmates to become 'honorable and honest men'.

In reality, the Nickel Academy is a chamber of horrors, where physical, emotional and sexual abuse is rife, where corrupt officials and tradesmen do a brisk trade in supplies intended for the school, and where any boy who resists is likely to disappear 'out back'. Stunned to find himself in this vicious environment, Elwood tries to hold on to Dr King's ringing assertion, 'Throw us in jail, and we will still love you.' But Elwood's fellow inmate and new friend Turner thinks Elwood is naive and worse; the world is crooked, and the only way to survive is to emulate the cruelty and cynicism of their oppressors.

The tension between Elwood's idealism and Turner's skepticism leads to a decision which will have decades-long repercussions.

Based on the history of a real reform school in Florida that operated for one hundred and eleven years and warped and destroyed the lives of thousands of children, The Nickel Boys is a devastating, driven narrative by a great American novelist whose work is essential to understanding the current reality of the United States.

Having enjoyed reading and learning from Whitehead's previous novel, the wildly successful The Underground Railroad, I was delighted to be approved for a review copy of this new work, The Nickel Boys. The stories share similarities in that they are both historical fiction that is firmly rooted in historical fact. The Nickel Boys takes place in 1960s 'Jim Crow' America which I have some understanding of thanks to reading biographies of Claudette Colvin and Carolyn Maull Mckinstry. I was prepared for The Nickel Boys to contain violent scenes, however I hadn't steeled myself enough for the sheer sadism that Whitehead depicts. I now have mental images which will take a long time to fade and feel that this story could sit as well in the horror genre as the historical fiction. I know child abusers all over the world have hidden themselves in 'schools' such as the Nickel Academy. The added layer of Southern racism here made this story at times almost unreadable.

I think The Nickel Boys is such a powerful read because Whitehead's writing style is always just restrained enough. His adult characters are chillingly real and I would be amazed to find anyone who can't empathise with Elwood's bewilderment at the way his promising future is so callously ripped from him. Even before he reaches the Nickel Academy though, I was shocked by acts such as the textbook vandalism. I have no doubt that this was - and possibly still is - widespread behaviour, but such mindless bigotry leaves me pretty much speechless.

I am sure that Colson Whitehead has penned another deserved hit with The Nickel Boys and I hope that the novel will open many discussions around the issues it raises. This particular story may be set over half a century ago, but sadly we cannot yet say that this never happens any more.


Etsy Find!
by Black Culture Books in
New York, USA

Click pic to visit Etsy Shop


Search Literary Flits for more:
Books by Colson Whitehead / Historical fiction / Books from America

12 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. Brilliant! It's a tough read, but Whitehead's writing is superb

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  2. Wow, that sounds like it would be an emotional read to see what he goes through at this place.

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    1. I found it difficult to comprehend how adult men could treat children in such horrific ways.

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  3. Wow this book totally isn't for me at all. :(

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    1. It's got several very strong abusive scenes :-/

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  4. Oh another book by Whitehead! I still have to read The Underground Railroad, but who hasn't heard is awesome right?? YAY for getting this ARC! I don;t think I have read enough about 'Jim Crow' America So I'm adding this one to my Historical TBR!

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    1. Both books have got really heavy themes and shocking scenes, but are absolutely worth reading. Underground Railroad has almost magical realism moments. Nickel Boys is unrelentingly dark

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  5. I thought The Underground Railroad was just an okay novel. While its message got across clearly, and it was very horrifying... I didn't connect with the writing style or characters. But I do want to try this one so I am happy to know you loved it so much and learned from a different perspective when reading this one.

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    1. I did feel a better sense of connection with The Nickel Boys than I did with Cora in Underground Railroad

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