- What: The Nickel Boys
- Who: Colson Whitehead
- Pages: 210, hard cover
- Genre: Historical fiction
- Published: 2019
- The lit: of 5 flames
I had a conversation a few weeks ago with a coworker about the memories books create — how it doesn’t matter how long it’s been, you still remember the exact feeling a book gave you and the exact spot you were when you read it.
It doesn’t happen with everything I pick up, but it did with Colson’s Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. I barely put down this moving and creative novel the minute I picked it up, and I’ll never forget how I could barely move from the bed in my Brooklyn apartment in the few days it took to read it. I remember being so incredibly in awe of such magic, triumph and heartbreak. And in my subconscious, I think the feelings that book evoked helped inspire Big Little Literature.
Because of these strong feelings, I was a bit skeptical to read Whitehead’s latest The Nickel Boys. I mean, there’s just no way anything can compare, right? Well, his 2019 novel brings the same emotions and power, and I finished this one in a matter of hours (as I descended into Denver accompanied by some devoted speed-reading because no way was I waiting to finish it until I got to my hotel). The verdict is in, and let’s just say it gave The Underground Railroad a very good run for its money.
“Like justice, it existed in theory.” — The Nickel Boys
Elwood Curtis, to his grandmother’s satisfaction, has never mixed with the wrong sort of kids. He’s always kept himself out of trouble, studied hard, and worked to make a life for himself. He’s also never let the fact that his parents abandoned him alter his attitude. His practicalities and level-headedness have led him to be a dreamer, and as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words infiltrate Elwood and ring throughout the black community in Tallahassee, Fla., he yearns to partake in his peaceful movement of the 1960s.
But Jim Crow, the devil he is, interferes at every intersection, which lands Elwood unfairly at The Nickel Academy, a reformatory school intended to raise the morals of young men and to charge out delinquent behavior and tendencies. The Nickel Academy has its dark secrets though.
Boys don’t really run away in the middle of the night, and being sick in the hospital wing isn’t as innocent as the headmasters will have the parents and guardians believe. Abuse in all forms, corruption, and deprivation prevail behind closed doors; dangerous connections are forged between the staff and high-ranking officials. These injustices challenge Elwood to maintain the virtues inspired by MLK, especially when he meets Turner, a boy who is no stranger to Nickel and who believes that only keeping your head down will ensure survival in an unfair world. Their opposing ideals create tension between the two friends, and it endangers them both as Elwood seeks to expose the truth, leading to a shocking and heartbreaking twist.
“You can change the law, but you can’t change people and how they treat each others.” — The Nickel Boys
The shock factor — though flameworthy — is far from the best part of this book, though it may raise your eyebrows to your hairline. Whitehead’s greatest strength as a writer, which translates to this novel, is his ability to elevate a piece of traumatizing American history and, even more powerfully, through the black voice and experience. He did that in The Underground Railroad when he highlighted the grotesque risks blacks had to take and (quite literally) the darkness that consumed their lives before the Civil War. He repeats the same in his latest novel with a story that only recently has come to light and not to great public knowledge. In doing so, he forces us to face our past and greatest demons and to elevate the public conscience.
“While race and its intersection with the American mythos have informed his fiction since his debut, he has now produced back-to-back historical novels, in the broadest definition of that term, that in sum offer an epic account of America’s penchant for paying lip service to its original sin while failing to face its full horror and its undying legacy of recidivism,” writes Frank Rich in his New York Times review.
There’s a key difference, though, between The Nickel Boys and its predecessor, and that lies in the lack of surreal elements. Whitehead used surreal and literal elements to tell The Underground Railroad. But with his most-recent book, he produces a stark reality that’s both jarring and captivating. His writing never sugarcoats, and it never shies away from the ugly; rather, it overwhelmingly portrays and personifies it. By mastering this intensity, Whitehead substantiates the most compelling and important aspect of literature: its ability to uncover stories we need to hear and spread. See, Nickel could have easily been written as nonfiction even if we’re ashamed to admit it, but Whitehead ups the ante by utilizing historical fiction to tell these horrors.
He writes for a smart audience too. As a whole, his writing explicitly illustrates the truth we may not want to see, but the language itself is rarely direct or simple. Yes, the implicit and explicit somehow coexist in Whitehead’s literature.
“They came at one a.m. but woke few, because it was hard to sleep when you knew they were coming, even if they weren’t coming for you.” — The Nickel Boys
It would be easy to write that the boys can’t fall asleep with something atrocious lurking, which is the context of this quote. But no. That would be much too simple and uninteresting for someone of Whitehead’s caliber. He incorporates a plethora of literary devices as well that blend into the plot without seeming forced or too high-brow. They perfectly bolster his storytelling.
Whitehead takes this real-life, gruesome story exponentially higher with his famous craft that has made him such a literary force. His writing is smart, sophisticated, and poetic yet relatable, and it shoots straight to the heart of human emotion and pain. It no longer matters which of his books is better because they should both be engrained in our hands and in our hearts while we anxiously await his next arrival.
*If you really want to know: The Underground Railroad wins out by a hair, but it’s about as thin as they come.*