The Nickel Boys


The Nickel Boys (2019), a novel by Colson Whitehead, is forceful from start to finish. In three parts, the story is centered around Elwood Curtis, a reader and dreamer with solid grades who gets accepted into a college south of Tallahassee. Hitchhiking there he accepts a ride without knowing he's getting into a stolen car. His life takes a fateful turn when a police officer arrests him along with the driver for theft. Still a teenager, he's sent to a reform school called Nickel, based on the real-life Dozier School for Boys, a facility in Florida where students were routinely beaten, tortured, raped and even murdered by staff. While The Nickel Boys is fiction, it incorporates the accounts of former Dozier students including the brutality many of them suffered. Whitehead's prose here are of a concise and strikingly acute style. He's also brilliant at developing identity and evoking empathy through narrative, as well as an anxiety akin to what the characters feel. The novel has a lot to say, about racism in America, education and miseducation, freedom and truth, authority, the handing down of hatred and ignorance across generations, love and fellowship, etc., and it speaks loud and clear without being didactic. One of the best-written and effective novels from 2019 that I've read.

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