The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
Read: 28 September - 4 October 2020
Release year: 2019
I picked up this book because I had the opportunity to sit on a chat between the author and a Spanish publishing house. Colson Whitehead is one of only four writers to have won Pulitzer Prize multiple times, alongside Booth Tarkington, William Faulkner and John Updike. Colson Whitehead won the Pulitzer for his last two published books: The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys. The former focuses on slavery in the United States in the 19th century, while the latter deals with the treatment of black Americans at a reform school in the 1960s. His upcoming novel, Harlem Shuffle, is scheduled for release in 2021.
The Nickel Boys is a fictional story based on the real life story of the Dozier School, a 111-year old Florida reform school whose history has been exposed in recent years. In 2012, they identified 55 unmarked burials on the school premises, and a further 27 in 2019. The school already had a reputation for abuse, beatings, rapes, torture and murders of students by staff. Until 1968, the school was racially segregated. One of the buildings on the grounds of the school was called the White House, a place where students were punished through whipping (sometimes until they lost consciousness). White and black students were punished in separate rooms.
The main character in this book is Elwood Curtis, an intelligent African American teenage boy who likes to read and study, and becomes a massive fan of Martin Luther King after listening to a recording of one of his speeches. One of his high school teachers helps him enroll in college classes. On his way to his first class, he accidentally hitchhikes with a man who has stolen a car. Elwood is arrested and sent to Nickel Academy, a juvenile reform school. Not long after his arrival, he gets into trouble after trying to help a boy who is being attacked by sexual predators. As a punishment, Elwood is brutally whipped in the White House by one of the employees and ends up in the infirmary. Here he befriends Jack Turner, who has a less optimist viewpoint than he does. Turner tells him the best way to survive school is to keep to himself. Elwood manages to do this until he finds out that government inspectors will be visiting the school. He decides to write a letter in which he exposes the poor conditions of the school. Again, Elwood receives a brutal whipping as a punishment, before being put in solitary confinement. After overhearing that Elwood will be killed by a staff member, Turner decides to help him escape from the school.
In order not to spoil the end of the book, I am not telling the end of the story, but I can tell you it involves a major twist. I definitely didn't see this twist coming, but I think it is beautifully depicted on the cover of the book. One of the things that I really liked about the book was the way this story was written down. Often these difficult topics are dealt with in an in-your-face way, where you are not allowed to think anything other than that it is wrong. Colson Whitehead, on the other hand, left it all open to interpretation. Of course, the events happening in this book aren't okay, but I don't like it if I can't make up my own mind about it.
During the chat with the Spanish publishing house, Colson explained how he came up with the idea to write this novel. After writing The Underground Railroad, which deals with slavery, he didn't wanted to write another heavy book, but after learning about the story of the Dozier School he just had to. The story is set in the 1960s, but he mentioned he could have written the same story in any other decade. I also found it very interesting to learn that he described Elwood and Turner as two different parts of his personality. Elwood as the optimistic or hopeful part that believes we can make the world a better place if we keep working at it, and Turner as the cynical side that believes this country is and always will be based on genocide, murder and slavery.
There were also some interesting questions in the chat which weren't necessarily about the book. When asked which advice he gave his students when he was a teacher, he said to read a lot of books to find out which writer you want to be, and then write a lot to find out which writer you actually are. When asked if you can write about racism if you haven't gone through the struggles yourself, he answered, "Yes, but don't fuck it up". I found Colson Whitehead to be a very interesting person and it was really cool to actually 'meet' him in a video chat.