read in January
Knowing ahead of time that I was going to be receiving The Nickel Boys as part of my subscription to Powell's Indiespensable, I decided to make myself familiar with the Dozier School of Boys in Marianna, Florida, since I knew that what had happened there was behind this novel. Author Colson Whitehead had first heard of it in 2014; I had no clue that such a place ever existed, but I was curious enough to want to know about it. I went through countless newspaper articles and watched a number of videos (and being thoroughly horrified about what I was learning), and then went through the report by Dr. Erin Kimmerle and her colleagues whose investigation focused on determining (as quoted in the report, 11)
"the location of missing children buried at the former Florida Industrial School, also known as the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in order to excavate and repatriate the remains to their families."At this point the book had arrived at my house and I thought about reading it right away, but I was just too afraid to do so after having immersed myself in the horrors of the Dozier School. So there it sat until I had the guts to pick it up. While Whitehead does not at all set aside the horrors of the school (here the Nickel Academy), his main focus is on the boys who for whatever reason have found themselves there.
It is significant, I think, that Whitehead opens his novel with a prologue discussing the discovery of bodies in a "secret graveyard on the north side of the Nickel Campus." Found during an environmental study of a field that developers hoped to turn into a "lunch plaza, with four water features and a concrete bandstand for the occasional event," a "new inquiry" had to be launched:
"there was no telling when the whole damned place could be razed, cleared, and neatly erased from history."Looking ahead to the final chapters of this novel, when two former Nickel Boys get together to talk about "the old days," one of them notes that the school
"didn't stop when you got out. Bend you all kind of ways until you were unfit for straight life, good and twisted by the time you left."While the "whole damned place" might be razed, memories and damaged psyches remain; as the dustjacket blurb puts it: the school "warped the lives of thousands of children." The Nickel Boys examines how this happened, following the life of Elwood Curtis, an African-American teen whose life fell apart the minute he accepted a ride from the wrong person. Never mind that he had absolutely nothing to do with the other man's crime; just being black and in the car was reason enough for him to be sent to Nickel.
|from the title page of my book
Elwood has grown up listening to speeches by Martin Luther King, and on his first day there he thinks back to one given to high school students in Washington D.C. where King had spoken of "the degradations of Jim Crow and the need to transform that degredation into action." He had "never permitted himself the kind of misbehavior that landed others in trouble," and decides that to make it through his sentence he would have to "keep doing what he'd always done: act right," and to, as King had said "Make a career of humanity." Elwood that realizes that he's "stuck" at Nickel, but he plans to "make the best of it," and believes that "Nickel would soon understand that about him too." He's so naive and so idealistic that it's painfully sad when he discovers what life is really like there.
As the author says in an interview at NPR, King's speeches about "loving the oppressor" spoke to "suffering and rising above it and loving in the face of impossible odds;" the question facing Elwood now is "can I do this?" He befriends Turner, who is not at all interested in idealism, but reality. He tells Ellwood that the "key" is to
"see how people act, and then you got to figure out how to get around them like an obstacle course."In short, play the game, since making it through Nickel depends on those in the system who put him in there.
As Amanitta Forma writes in her review at The Guardian, Nickel Academy is a
"corrupt world, in which the rule of law is is meaningless and the real laws are unwritten."It is a place where spirits and bones are crushed and broken; where rewards come with keeping one's head down, "just like they wanted."
A good historical novel should prompt readers to go and dig out the facts behind it; in this case, what you discover is beyond painful but a story which needs to be told. This book offers an opportunity for the story of one of these Nickel Boys to be heard, but there is also this: you can't read this book without making a leap to our own time and recognizing a sad and painful constant. In my opinion, that's what makes this book so powerful.
very highly recommended.