The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

The capacity to suffer. Elwood – all the Nickel boys – existed in the capacity. Breathed in it, ate in it, dreamed in it. That was their lives now. Otherwise they would have perished. The beatings, the rapes, the unrelenting winnowing of themselves. They endured. But to love those who would have destroyed them? To make that leap? We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. 

Elwood shook his head. What a thing to ask. What an impossible thing.

71yP-dPa0mLIf a 225-page book takes me nine days to read, either I don’t like it or it’s really sad. The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead is decidedly sad. I didn’t cry, and I didn’t feel burdened by gratuitous descriptions of violence. Whitehead, mercifully,  writes sparingly but efficiently of the punishments given out by the mean-spirited men in charge of the fictional Nickel Academy. I just felt sad, heavy with the knowledge that these injustices happened to real boys in the 20th century at Florida’s Dozier School for Boys, the inspiration for Nickel. Heavy with the weight of our continued struggle with racism in the U.S. At the same time, I relished Whitehead’s characterization of the two young heroes in this story, Elwood and Turner. He is a phenomenal writer – not an emotional one, but one who nonetheless has the capacity to move me greatly.

It’s the early 1960’s and Elwood and Turner, the book’s main characters, stand in for hundreds of boys, black and white, who endured horrible conditions at the real life Dozier School. (You can read more about it here.) The boys at Nickel were either wards of the state that no one was sure what to do with or they were there as punishment for a “crime.” Elwood, an enterprising, bookish young man, inspired by recordings his grandma bought him of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., starts the book as the least likely boy to end up at a place like Nickel. But he’s soon caught up in a tragic mishap that lands him in the nightmarish facility, where he meets Turner, a low-key, cynical, but streetwise teen who has no family and is on his second stint at the school. Turner takes Elwood under his wing after Elwood makes the mistake of letting his ideals guide him in the murky social structure at Nickel.

I absolutely fell in love with these two characters, especially Elwood. The way he continues to struggle throughout the novel to reconcile his ideals, the ideals Dr. King showed him, and the reality of his situation, all the adults and kids who weren’t playing by the rules of love and justice and a higher purpose, this is the heart of the book for me. I have read some reviews of Whitehead’s works that fault him for being detached or unemotional. I agree with that characterization but for me it’s a good thing. The things he writes about, especially his last two books, have been about so much sadness and violence that I want a level of detachment from the author – it helps me, a sensitive person, not get overwhelmed by the subject matter. I can focus on the beauty, strength,  and economy of the writing and, here, delight in the characters.

The Nickel Boys is an achievement, a testament to the hell that real life boys endured for most of the 20th century. I think Colson Whitehead is a genius who can write just about any kind of book he wants to and I love the range of his work. I know this kind of book isn’t an easy sell, especially for sensitive readers. But I highly recommend it – if I, known shunner of heavy books, can handle it, you most likely can too! ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐


24 thoughts on “The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

  1. Great review! I completely get, what you mean about the unemotional writing. Sometimes I feel the message comes across even stronger with unemotional writing; you aren’t made to feel a certain way because of the writing, but because of the story itself.

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  2. Great review! There’s certainly an argument to be made for unemotional writing, especially when telling such a strong story. Authors can easily get so swept up they end up making it feel mawkish or manipulative. I’m not sure you’ve talked me into this one – having worked in a school for “bad” boys, I fear it might hit too close to home. But I’ll definitely read The Underground Railroad one of these days…

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  3. Great review! Never really thought about unemotional writing but reading your review, it makes sense. This sounds heavy without being overwhelming. I am yet to read this author but I hope to change that soon.

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  4. You really make a great case for Colson Whitehead in general. I will have to try one of his books soon – and this one actually appeals to me more than his last one did. Great review!

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  5. Great review! I agree with everything you said – it is a “must-read” book. It may sound a bit horrible, but actually I did not find “The Nickel Boys” as hard to read as I expected. That surprised me. Yes, there were very sad and traumatic scenes but I can name so many other books which were a lot more horrific in content than The Nickel Boys, for example, Sleepers is one example. My point is that I saw much “light” and “hope” in “The Nickel Boys”- as though the author wanted to tell us – that is how it was, lets not forget it and try to prevent these situations happening in future.

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  6. I wonder if that distance in the writing comes from the fact that violence against the black community is ubiquitous, that racism is there and never ending. It’s almost tiresome because it’s so common. Perhaps.


      1. I heard an interview with him somewhere (maybe the NYTRB) in which he discussed how the story of these boys grabbed hold of him, how it wouldn’t let him be, so I would guess that it’s simply his professionalism that allowed him to step back from the emotions just temporarily in order to write the story in the best way it could be written, rather than a sense of disconnect on his own part. It was just so well done: definitely worthwhile reading! Are you thinking about reading another of his?

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  7. Your review is excellent! I loved Whitehead’s last two books I find it hard to articulate my thoughts. I started writing a review of this months ago but have honestly thought about reading it again. I was so concerned about Elwood and Turner, all the boys at Nickel.

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