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The Nickel Boys ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Nickel Boys ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Colson Whitehead’s novel, The Nickel Boys, won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It’s a story about a fictional (but based in reality) boys’ reformatory in Florida, the Nickel Academy, in the early 1960s.

The principal character is a black teen named Elwood Curtis. Elwood lives with—and is raised by—his grandmother, Harriet, since his parents have run off and left him. Harriet works as a maid in a hotel.

Elwood is a “good” boy who doesn’t get into trouble the way some of his friends do. He works in a small store that sells newspapers, cigarettes, and candy and he understands the value of an education. When he is riding in a stolen car that he doesn’t even know is stolen, he is arrested and ends up being sentenced to the Nickel Academy.

Elwood is out of his depth at Nickel, meaning he doesn’t belong there. He meets all kinds of other boys, some of them friendly and others bullying and cruel. They all have one thing in common: they are all part of a cruel and unjust system that punishes young people, black and white, who haven’t yet reached adulthood. Boys are routinely mistreated (inadequate food), beaten, locked in solitary confinement or a “sweat box,” or sexually assaulted. Those who commit a serious enough transgression might be beaten and tortured to death and, after their bodies are furtively buried, reported to have “run off.”

When state inspectors come to Nickel for an inspection, management puts on a good show to demonstrate that they are taking good care of their charges, even to the point of serving good food with ice cream for dessert (on that day only). Elwood Curtis has a plan. He has been keeping a written record of what conditions are really like at Nickel and how people are really being treated. He hopes to slip the written record to one of the inspectors without any of the Nickel employees seeing. He’s taking a dangerous risk; if he gets caught, it could mean the end of him.

The Nickel Boys is a good book, but I think you will agree it’s not a great book. It’s the companion piece to a novel from three years ago called The Underground Railroad, which also won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. (Colson Whitehead is one of only four writers to win two Pulitzer Prizes for fiction in their careers; the others are Booth Tarkington, William Faulkner, and John Updike.) Both novels deal with black issues while embracing universal themes of belonging, oneness, isolation, and functioning in a world that is very often unjust to anybody of any skin color.

Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp

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