The Nickel Boys

by Colson Whitehead

This book was, and I mean this quite literally, incredible. From the writing to the story to the subject matter to the truth of it, The Nickel Boys was an intensely emotional read. Colson Whitehead has put together a true masterpiece in my opinion, not a single word is wasted and there is absolutely no fluff on this thing. The brevity of this book was actually refreshing; I find a lot of books that go into difficult, torturous subject matter really draw it out to emphasize the point of how brutal it was (looking at you Orphan Masters Son). The Nickel Boys gets everything done in just over 200 pages, and thats all we needed to get the sense of how horrifying Jim Crow era institutions could be.

The Nickel Boys is the story of two young men in Florida, 1968. They both get sent to The Nickel Academy, an integrated reform school for young trouble makers. Unsurprisingly, the black students at the school are treated significantly worse than the white students, being subject to poor diets, physical abuse, rape, and frequent deaths. The boys, Elwood and Turner, could not come from different backgrounds but end up becoming friends and relying upon each other to navigate the dangerous and restrictive world they find themselves in.

So, calling The Nickel Boys fiction isn't all the way true. The setting of the story is actually based on the Dozier School for Boys. Going into reading this novel I did not know that. I guessed that many of the things that were in the book had actually happened, but I did not know that a lot of this was pretty tightly based on real events. There's definitely a gravity that gets added when you know that, knowing that not only were there boys treated this way in real life but there were boys in this exact situation.

Whitehead drills home the precarious feeling that Elwood is feeling. While reading I was constantly worried that just around the corner there was some catastrophic event coming, some tremendous injustice that would sweep through and carry Elwood and Turner away with it. Maybe they would step out of line, or maybe someone was just in a bad mood and bam, it would all be over. I think that's what is supposed to come through the pages, the feeling that suddenly your life could end and there wasn't anything that anyone could do. 1968 was a time when African Americans had so little in the way of rights that they weren't even allowed to protect themselves; the only options were to take it or go to prison. I often times think that today, despite how far we have come, that we may not be too far away from some of the happenings in The Nickel Boys, and that we have a long way to go as a society.

I want to call out something in particular, and that is the superb writing in this story. Whitehead gets on some F. Scott Fitzgerald shit with how sparse he is with his prose, and with how perfectly it lands every time. This is an attribute that I feel a lot of modern authors are missing; so many books these days feel like just a ton of words and exposition, but The Nickel Boys is proof that you can crank out an absolute home run by writing neat and focused. I love books that emphasize the prose and keep things cut down instead of bloated, and this book is the best examples of that philosophy I have read in a long time.

Overall, I highly recommend this book! Quick read, amazing prose, harrowing story.