THE NICKEL BOYS

Book Cover

The acclaimed author of The
Underground Railroad
(2016) follows up with a leaner, meaner saga of Deep
South captivity set in the mid-20th century and fraught with horrors more
chilling for being based on true-life atrocities.

Elwood Curtis is a law-abiding,
teenage paragon of rectitude, an avid reader of encyclopedias and after-school
worker diligently overcoming hardships that come from being abandoned by his
parents and growing up black and poor in segregated Tallahassee, Florida. It’s
the early 1960s, and Elwood can feel changes coming every time he listens to an
LP of his hero Martin Luther King Jr. sermonizing about breaking down racial
barriers. But while hitchhiking to his first day of classes at a nearby black
college, Elwood accepts a ride in what turns out to be a stolen car and is
sentenced to the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory that looks somewhat
like the campus he’d almost attended but turns out to be a monstrously racist
institution whose students, white and black alike, are brutally beaten,
sexually abused, and used by the school’s two-faced officials to steal food and
supplies. At first, Elwood thinks he can work his way past the arbitrary
punishments and sadistic treatment (“I am stuck here, but I’ll make the best of
it…and I’ll make it brief”). He befriends another black inmate, a street-wise
kid he knows only as Turner, who has a different take on withstanding Nickel: “The
key to in here is the same as surviving out there—you got to see how people
act, and then you got to figure out how to get around them like an obstacle
course.” And if you defy them, Turner warns, you’ll get taken “out back” and
are never seen or heard from again. Both Elwood’s idealism and Turner’s
cynicism entwine into an alliance that compels drastic action—and a shared
destiny. Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s
long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s novel displays its
author’s facility with violent imagery and his skill at weaving narrative
strands into an ingenious, if disquieting whole.

There’s something a tad more
melodramatic in this book’s conception (and resolution) than one expects from
Whitehead, giving it a drugstore-paperback glossiness that enhances its
blunt-edged impact.

kirkusreviews.com

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