The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

aDdyDwAAQBAJBooks that describe truly horrible and traumatic things, especially that happen to children, can be so challenging–to write and to read. (I think of A Little Life). And books that address major societal issues, like our history of racism, likewise. I think in both cases a book succeeds by being sufficiently personal, which this one is.

It centers around Elwood, who, after living a life that Whitehead describes as “industrious” as a child, is wrongly accused of a crime and sent to the Nickel Academy, a reform school where he meets Turner, forming the central relationship of the book. We get present-day snippets revealing the damage done interspersed occasionally with the detailed scenes from the past at the school. There’s also a little bit of a twist, although not too much of one. I was drawn in and stayed that way. It even had occasional notes of humor, which to me really make it stand out in its humanity. (I think of the Mexican boy who got transferred from the white group to the black group when he got too tan.)

Finally I should note that this was based on the real-life Dozier school, where a secret graveyard was discovered recently, in Florida. I don’t know enough details about Dozier to know how closely Whitehead hewed, but I do know from the acknowledgments that he drew on primary source material. The book never felt like it was showing off all the details the author had learned. (I’m looking at you, Ian.) It just felt true.

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