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.
If 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! ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐