It’s been only a few years since Colson Whitehead’s historical allegory The Underground Railroad (2016) won the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and the Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction. The book was also longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker Prize. Whitehead’s “Railroad” took a surreal look at slavery, while his main characters roved from peril to peril like Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver, but with an actual underground train and “splendid locomotives.” Whitehead’s newest novel The Nickel Boys (2019), is a realistic depiction of another era in African-American history: the post Jim Crow era in Florida, and it’s set primarily in the 1960s and 1970s. This book has a colloquial feel to it, with occasional bursts of eloquence primarily arising from the words of Martin Luther King Jr. and their effect on the young protagonist. The story about a brutal reform school begins with a prologue set in 2014, which includes the foreshadowing of a major plot twist, followed by chapters that begin in the 1960s and progress in an arc that culminates in an epilogue taking place in 2014. Violence, racism, and ways to confront them are the themes of the book, a hot-button topic, considering the current state of the country: a racist president whose words influence, directly or indirectly, violence and mass-murders by domestic terrorists, unnecessary killings by bigoted cops, and national news commentators who insist that white supremacy is a hoax.
Whitehead says his novel was inspired by the reports in the Tampa Bay Times about rape, abuse, and murder at the Dozier School for Boys, a reform school in Marianna, Florida. The unexplained deaths and unmarked graves led to forensic studies of the graves by Dr. Erin Kimmerle and archaeology students at the University of South Florida. Whitehead found their reports invaluable in creating his own fiction.
In Whitehead’s story, the Dozier School becomes The Nickel Academy for Boys and follows the lives of Elwood and his friend Turner. Raised by his grandmother after his parents fled to California, Elwood is industrious and a good student. He attends school, works doing dishes for a time, and later gets a job in a store owned by an Italian immigrant. Elwood can do all of Mr. Marconi’s accounting in his head. Elwood listens to recordings of speeches by Dr. King and tries to be optimistic and stay out of trouble. After the Brown v. The Board of Education decision, Elwood believes, “It was only a matter of time before all the invisible walls came down,” but his grandmother says, “Jim Crow ain’t going to just slink off. His wicked self.” Along with his optimism, Elwood has a sense of self, a sense of dignity, and even a sense of nobility. Unfortunately, he occasionally seems to have “no goddamned sense.” He’s had bouts of bad luck, too, but things are going so well for Elwood in school that he gets a chance to take free classes at the local technical college. He sees a future where he will join students marching for their rights and their lives. But on the way to his new school for the first time, bad luck strikes when Elwood gets a ride from a guy in a stolen car. He’s arrested and sent to Nickel Academy.
Outwardly, Nickel doesn’t seem as horrible as Elwood thought it would be. He meets Turner who is an orphan, so they have the absence of parents in common. But Turner is more worldly than Elwood and lives by his wits and instincts. The boys become good friends and often argue their optimistic versus pragmatic philosophies. Elwood agrees with Dr. King’s followers’s motto: “Nonviolence is our watchword. We shall win by love” but admits that it is difficult to defeat your enemy by love. Turner is the sort who is more interested in getting by. Each looks at his former, external world and Nickel Academy in a different way:
The blinders Elwood wore, walking around. The law was one thing—you can march and wave signs around and change a law if you convinced enough white people. In Tampa, Turner saw the college kids with their nice shirts and ties sit in at the Woolworths. He had to work, but they were out protesting. And it happened—they opened the counter. Turner didn’t have the money to eat there either way. You can change the law but you can’t change people and how they treat each other. Nickel was racist as hell—half the people who worked here probably dressed up like the Klan on weekends—but the way Turner saw it, wickedness went deeper than skin color.
Soon, Elwood discovers that Nickel is indeed much worse than he imagined it would be. He went to regular classes, but the other half of the time, he was expected to work. Some of that work was questionable: doing free labor for the townspeople. Other tasks, like selling Nickel students’ food and supplies to restaurants and stores, were illegal. The regular classes were a joke, and to progress and be released from Nickel, it didn't matter how well you did in them––you advanced by following the rules and conforming. The skeptical Turner, who was doing his second stint at Nickel, tries to convince Elwood that the best policy at the school is to lie low and get along. If you didn’t, you were reprimanded and flogged in the White House, a building that existed at the actual Dozier School.
The White House was integrated. There, school officials would flog anyone, regardless of color. But sometimes, if you were Black, you were taken “out back.” Turner showed Elwood out back: two oak trees with iron rings embedded into them where the Black boys were shackled and whipped. “This place is separate,” Turner says. “They take you out back, they don’t bring you to the hospital. They put you down as escaped and that’s that, boy.” You were killed and buried in an unmarked grave. Even if you followed all the rules, “you prayed you didn’t have a beating hanging over your head or that you’d been picked for a date on Lovers’ Lane,” a euphemism for being raped.
Elwood, like many other boys in the novel and in real life, was whipped in the White House and it left him “scarred all over, not just his legs. It had weeviled deep into his personality.” He escapes being taken “out back,” but, ultimately, he doesn’t escape the weight of a horrific system.
As political statement—The Nickel Boys is a reminder of where we have been and a warning not to go there again, despite the lunacy of our present leadership. As literature,it’s difficult to tell what criteria the Pulitzer committee might choose when it awards its prize for fiction. Often, it seems to favor inventive form over sociological-political substance. Sometimes it’s a combination thereof. Other times it seems the committee’s criteria is anyone’s guess. But Whitehead's novel is poignant, relevant, well-written, and about as perfect as a novel can be. Like The Underground Railroad, The Nickel Boys is certain to make the Booker Prize longlist. It might even win.