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Book Review: Colson Whitehead's The Nickel Boys

I've grown up in a place where meeting a black person was an improbable probability. Nevertheless, I cried like a baby after finishing reading Harriet Beecher Stowe‘s Uncle Tom‘s Cabin, which was on my school English reading list, and I couldn't perceive this awful phenomenon of segregation vaguely taught at history lessons. When I finally flew to New York twenty-five years ago to continue my university studies I thought racism was over. Black people surrounded me everywhere in all types of emploi with self-confidence and pride. I enjoyed their company and considered even more reasonable and more fun. Treating a human being differently just because of a colour of their skin has always sounded nonsense to me.

However, look what‘s happening now. Though I‘m not going into arguments - there‘s too many already written and spoken - I‘m here to review a book. By just a mere coincidence I‘ve read Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys approximately a month ago. I've got this novel on the radar last year right after its publication but only it getting the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction this year has speeded up turning my interest into factual reading. I didn't enjoyed it because the things Colson Whitehead writes about are far from being enjoyable.

The writer based his story on the actual Arthur G Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida, which was closed only in 2011. In the novel it is called Nickel and follows the fates of two black boys there. „Even in death the boys were trouble." This is the first sentence of the novel conveying the true attitude towards the boys from the very beginning. However, it refers to the secret graveyard found by student archaeologists both in reality and in fiction, as some 81 boys were found buried in unmarked graves in Dozier in 2012.

But after a general overview of the Nickel the writer changes his documentary tune and focuses on Elwood Curtis and his life in Tallahassee before the reform school. He is an excellent student inspired by ideas of Martin Luther King and a loving grandson living together with his grandmother Harriet. Elwood is noticed by one of his progressive teachers who organizes free classes at a coloured college. However, this kind gesture unexpectedly turns into a doom for Elwood. To go to the college he hitches a wrong car, which appears to be stolen. When police stops them, nobody is interested in a black boy‘s story when you could have been arrested only by accidentally bumping into a white passer-by. „It‘s one thing to tell someone to do what‘s right and another thing for them to do it,” as Ellwood’s grandmother explained him why the newest Supreme Court‘s ruling on desegregation wasn't working in practice.

Though the novel lacks the part about Elwood‘s conviction and how come the defense couldn't save the innocent. Probably the writer was in a hurry to introduce the Nickel and what it was like to survive in there. As a naive fighter for justice Elwood cannot resist to defend a weaker boy being beaten by others in the toilet and as a reward is dragged to a place called the White House (what an ambiguous irony!) by superintendent Spencer, a real sadist, and beaten with a strap, which was „three feet long with a wooden handle, and they had called it Black Beauty.” Elwood spends weeks in the school‘s hospital afterwards staying on his stomach because „the raw slashes on the backs of his legs crept up like gruesome fingers“, treated only by aspirin and visited by nurse Wilma who „was almost sweet to the white boys who came in with their abrasions and ailment, a second mother. Nary a kind word for the black boys.”

Cafeteria at the Arthur G. Dozier School

At the reform school Elwood meets Turner, another black boy who is also of a kind nature but a total opposite of an idealistic Elwood. Turner is down-to-earth survivor with no family waiting for him outside. He knows how to navigate this rotten school system and tries to keep Elwood out of trouble. Only until Elwood decides to expose school corruption with a denouncing letter. Then there‘s no other way left than to try to escape before Spencer hasn't killed Elwood in a unimaginably cruel way...

The story isn't consistently told. It sometimes jumps to more modern times when Elwood is free and older and is starting his business career. Actually, the story-telling style is somewhat shallow causing occasional doubts of Pulitzer worthiness, despite the relevance of the topic. However, the final twist in the story (which I‘m not going to reveal) really plays the trick. It‘s like being stabbed with a dagger straight into your heart. Because the feeling is so sudden and so sharply painful. And deadly.

At the end of the story Elwood checks into the former Richmond hotel and when he goes back to its restaurant he is told by the waitress to sit anywhere he likes. From the age of nine Elwood was spending his afternoons in the hotel‘s kitchen and playing a game waiting when the first black man will stay at the Richmond, and has never stopped playing: „Whether his opponent in this game was his own foolishness or the mulish constancy of the world was unclear. “ Unfortunately, though on another level, the game is still on...


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