THE NICKEL BOYS
THE NICKEL BOYS

Another powerful must-read book from Colson Whitehead (giving him his second Pulitzer Prize in Fiction), this fictional story exposes the segregation and racism at a reform school during the '60's Jim Crow south era based on the actual accounts of survivors of The Dozier School in Florida.

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THE NICKEL BOYS

BY COLSON WHITEHEAD

208 pages

‘The Nickel Boys’ by Colson Whitehead is his second Pulitzer Prize winning book and again powerfully exposes racism laying the bare the hidden secrets of a segregated reform school for boys who offended in 1960’s Florida. This was during the era of Jim Crow’s laws enforcing white supremacy. Although fictional, the story is based on accounts of survivors of the Dozier School for Boys when in 2012 students from The University of South Florida dug up human remains in its grounds, the majority of which were black boys.

The story revolves round two central characters. Elwood is being brought up by his grandmother after his mother abandons him to follow his father and move to California. Elwood is a hardworking, intelligent teenager whose has grown up on the teachings of Martin Luther King, attends protests and has designs to go to college. Inevitably, fate plays its evil card when Elwood makes a wrong decision and is sent to the Nickel Academy, a reform school for young offenders. Here he meets Turner, an orphan who recognises the only way to survive is to play the system. He tries to point out to Elwood that dreams don’t matter, all that matters is to not attract the attention of the white man in charge. Can Elwood’s fight to stand up for himself and his desire to learn and have a future carry him through his time at the Nickel Academy unscathed and have the future he desires?

Whilst the façade of the Nickel Academy assumed the public image of an esteemed school of reform, with donations from high profile southerners ensuring the grounds maintained an impressive outward appearance with its large sports grounds and open space, inevitably the reality inside was very different. But it is the segregation of the white boys from the black boys which lays bare the frightening discrimination of treatment. Whitehead makes a poignant mockery of this when Jaimie, a boy of Mexican descent keeps being shifted from camp to camp depending on whether his skin is pale from being indoors to when his skin has darkened from working outside. Within the school, it was The White House which was the centre of evil, where any pupil who misbehaved was sent to, usually in the middle of the night, and punished relentlessly, to return several days later scarred and traumatised or in some cases not to return at all. Whitehead holds back in giving graphic details of the beatings, the unsaid giving more power.

The Den reviewed the brilliant The Underground Railroad (in our library and also now a TV series) which although tackling an equally brutal subject of the slave trade, is based on an imaginary underground railway as a means of escape. The Nickel Boys is far more direct and factual and whilst it is fictional, tells the story of the physical, sexual and mental abuse suffered by these young students. It is a powerful must read book with a wonderful impossible to predict ending. As the school only closed in 2011, it is also a shocking reminder of how recent these events are, especially as some of the survivors are still alive.

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