The Nick­el Boys is a com­ing-of-age com­ment on injustice

Review: Colson Whitehead’s novel is a poignant and evergreen look at the race and class system in America.

Rat­ing: 5/5

It’s the 1960s in Tal­la­has­see, Flori­da, and young Elwood Cur­tis has done every­thing a good kid is sup­posed to do to get ahead: he excels in school, he reads non-stop, he works a part-time job and lis­tens to his grand­moth­er (his only avail­able par­ent). He is also black. And in the Jim Crow south, Elwood can nev­er real­ly get ahead.

In author Col­son Whitehead’s new fic­tion nov­el The Nick­el Boys – inspired by the true sto­ry of the Dozi­er School for Boys – Elwood is quick­ly hit with his real­i­ty. That is, as a black boy in the Unit­ed States, you can play by the rules of a caste sys­tem all you want and still end up screwed. Because the sys­tem is made nei­ther by you nor for you – it’s made to keep you down.

One slip-up lands Elwood at the Nick­el School for Boys, a juve­nile deten­tion cen­ter-cum-reform school, where the only real cur­ricu­lum is cru­el­ty. Some boys are incar­cer­at­ed for small crimes, some come from vio­lence, oth­ers are sim­ply orphans with no place else to go. The rea­sons for land­ing at Nick­el don’t real­ly mat­ter because, once you get there, every­one is treat­ed to the same beat­ings, the same sense of hope­less­ness – unless of course you’re black.

Because even when all the lost boys of the Nick­el School seem to be at rock bot­tom, there exists below that a strat­i­fi­ca­tion reserved exclu­sive­ly for peo­ple of colour, a depth so unjust white peo­ple can­not begin to believe it – or choose not to – but White­head digs it up and shows it. Look at this, he says, this is Amer­i­can history.

It’s dif­fi­cult to read this emo­tion­al nov­el and not feel angry on Elwood’s behalf. That a great coun­try can be so cal­lous towards entire groups of peo­ple and so blind to the abuse of all its most vul­ner­a­ble chil­dren is not an easy thing to stom­ach. Yet we con­tin­ue to let it hap­pen again and again. His­to­ry repeats as if in a vac­u­um. Per­haps that’s why White­head felt com­pelled to write this book now.

When new­ly tar­get­ed out-groups suf­fer at our bor­ders, terms like post-racial start to infil­trate mod­ern day ver­nac­u­lar and move­ments for black rights are co-opt­ed for all rights, the point is missed. Whitehead’s nar­ra­tive also reminds us just how much the sys­temic oppres­sion of decades past (but not many decades and not real­ly past) con­tin­ues to affect peo­ple of colour today. Look at this, he says, this is Amer­i­ca today.

Like the rest of the South hous­ing at Nick­el is seg­re­gat­ed, as are meals, school­ing and activ­i­ties. In the black dorms Elwood befriends the street-savvy Turn­er and the two boys become fast friends, each one need­ing the oth­er to sur­vive with more than just their bod­ies in tact. 

Some­where at its core, this is a nov­el about friend­ship and com­ing-of-age, but it is also about inequal­i­ty – how promis­ing, and ordi­nary, young men are doomed to a life on hard mode sim­ply because they were born black. And that’s if they get to live it at all.

The Nick­el Boys will be released from Pen­guin Ran­dom House 16 July 2019

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