Book review : The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead.

When I manage to get a publication day review out then it is a pretty good indication that I feel strongly about a book.

And few books I have read this year have provoked such strong feelings as The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. Huge thanks to Fleet for sending me a digital copy in return for an honest review.

I found myself reading and reacting to this novel in so many different guises; as a mother, as an educator and most importantly of all simply as a human being.

So when I found myself doubting my credentials to response to and review this important book; a book whose power is magnified by the fact that it is firmly rooted in truth, I reminded myself that this is a story that everyone needs to hear. This is a story that everyone needs to read, to absorb and to react to.

Set this book against today’s climate, against a US President standing smugly in front of a baying crowd, shouting ‘Send her back’, against a rise of right wing politics and populations more polarised than they have been for generations. Set the book right there and we can feel it’s power. Set it right there and Jim Crow’s laws seem all too recent and all too real.

So, let us start with the book’s beginnings, the kernel of truth from which the tale has sprung. For Nickel Academy is the fictional brother of The Doizer School for boys. Established in Florida in 1900, Dozier was a reform school, taking both white and black boys. For over a hundred years, for this school only closed in 2011, hundreds of boys passed through its gates. Exposed and subjected to the most horrendous physical, psychological and sexual abuse, not all of these boys left Dozier. It was an institution that preyed on the most vunerable, those without families, wealth, education or hope.

Dozier School, Florida

It is their story that Colson Whitehead takes up. Through the character of Elwood he begins to give generations of boys a voice, and gives us a timely reminder of where we have been and where we currently find ourselves.

Set in the early 1960’s, against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, we follow the story of Elwood, an adolescent black boy. Abandoned by his parents but raised by his loving Grandmother, Harriet, Elwood is full of promise. Elwood is on a journey, inspired by the speeches of Dr Martin Luther King, he works and studies hard. Flirting with activism, watching the wider community, he believes in his future. He has hope, hope that the world is changing and that America is finally ready to embrace a new way of thinking. Others see his potential and chances are thrown his way, but one innocent mistake and Elwood’s life heads in a completely different direction. For Elwood finds himself sentenced to a spell in the infamous Nickel Academy, a school whose’s stated aims and practices are worlds apart from it’s realities. Even in Nickel segregation exists. No matter what your colour, life is hard and unpredictable, but for black boys it will always be that bit harder.

What now for Elwood? Can he hold true to Dr King’s words? Can he find love where others sow hate? Can he rise again, stronger and empowered? Or will Nickel break his spirit and throw him off course forever?

For we are under no illusions that Nickel breaks the spirit, minds and bodies of boys and future men. Their stories litter the pages.We are ushered in to the novel by 21st Century archaeology students, students who are trying to identify remains in unmarked graves. We meet men huddled in online chat rooms, or in kitchens over beers or flinching at the mere mention of Florida, never mind Nickel. Men who are trying to confront and come to terms with their stories. Men looking for justice and their own individual peace. Whitehead leaves us in no doubt that Elwood is one of many, a link in a chain and each story deserves to be heard.

For this tale is not told in a linear fashion. Other stories are repeatedly woven into the narrative, stories that cover the life time of the school. Through the eyes of Elwood we see friendships forged and bonds created under the most difficult of circumstances. The story of Elwood and latterly his friend Turner, builds immediate, often unbearable tension. Elwood is our eyes and heart. Through him we see and feel the horrors of Nickel. He draws upon our empathy and our trust and leaves us exposed to the abuses within it’s walls. Whitehead makes sure that we see first hand, over and over, the very real and human cost of Nickel.

Add in the testimonies of ‘Old Boys’ in their many forms and the author brings in to sharp focus the long term and wider cost of such abuse. Colson Whitehead places this story squarely in today’s consciousness, revealing it’s societal causes and consequences, challenging us to assess whether this could happen again. It represents a period in time that you think you know well, that you may think has lost the power to shock. Read The Nickel Boys and remind yourself just how wrong you are.

Yes, this is a tale partly rooted in ‘Black History’, however we may choose to define that, but in truth this is everyone’s history. It is everyone’s past and it should shape our present and our futures.

Rachel

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead is published by Fleet on 1st August 2019

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