Book review: ‘The Nickel Boys’ by Colson Whitehead


Elwood Curtis, under the watchful eye of his grandmother, was a good young man, a young man who did what he was supposed to do. He did not get in trouble; he knew how to avoid it. But sometimes in the Jim Crow South of the ‘60s, trouble found you. For instance, if you hitched a ride in a car that had been stolen, even though you didn’t know it was stolen, there was likely to be trouble — no room for black excuses.

When he was a high school senior headed for college, Elwood’s plans were put on hold when he was sent to Nickel Academy. Nickel Academy was technically a school. Its residents were to get moral, intellectual and vocational training. The moral education was at best questionable; the intellectual, of the most rudimentary kind; and the vocational training consisted of being sent out to area farms and businesses to do their grunt work. When Elwood pointed out that he was slated for college, it resulted in him being ignored or treated as a trouble causer. Further, his effort to stop a bullying incident led being taken, that night, from the bunk house to the Whitehouse for a severe beating with a leather strap to his legs. That resulted in a lengthy stay in the hospital until he could walk. The nurse was less than kind, and the doctor’s answer to anything was two aspirin.

Elwood’s grandmother, Harriet, had been active in several of the early civil rights activities. On Christmas 1962, Elwood received the Martin Luther King album, Martin Luther King at Zion Hill.

Under King’s tutelage, Elwood learned that he was as good as anybody and that he was to return the hate of the white race with love. Love hadthe power to overcome. While Elwood tried his best to live King’s teachings, his friend Turner did not. He tried to steer Elwood through the maze.

At Nickel, King’s beliefs were put to the test. Nickel was segregated, with blacks having the less desirable dorms. In addition, the only location for unmarked graves was behind the Whitehouse, also in that area. Worse, the graveyard had a tree with two rings at arm’s length to tie a person who was being beaten to death, a fate officially known as “having run away.” Like most of the boys, Elwood learned to go along to get along. But he was not comfortable with that, and it didn’t fit the resistance model taught by King.

Elwood was a meticulous notetaker, and he was able to identify fraud as goods intended for use in the school were being sold in town. When the institution received an inspection, Elwood passed his notes to an inspector. All that accomplished was to get him dragged out at night and put in solitary confinement. When Turner learned that Elwood was destined for the field behind the Whitehouse, he freed Elwood and led their escape.

To offset the severe tone of the book, we get an early glimpse of Elwood, the adult, running a successful moving business in New York. This is again picked up after the escape, so we know the escape was successful. We also learn the fate of other Nickel Boys. It turns out, though, that there is more to the story than is initially apparent.

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