This week we're taking a closer look at Powell's Pick of the Month The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead.
This sharply written, gut-punch of a novel is the epitome of the saying that fiction is a lie that tells the truth. Whitehead unflinchingly portrays the horrors of Jim Crow-era Florida, an uncomfortable period of American history that many would rather forget. Whitehead shows us that unearthing the truth of injustices buried in the past is a powerful and necessary act. A brilliant book written by a master of the literary arts, The Nickel Boys
is a must-read. — Mary S.
It’s hard not to appreciate Colson Whitehead’s work. Whitehead’s sentence-by-sentence attention to craft and the empathetic stretch of his imagination demand careful reading, while the propulsive nature of his plotting masks the skill it takes to marry entertainment and truth-telling. In his recent works, The Underground Railroad
and The Nickel Boys
, Whitehead draws on the histories of slavery and racism to correct misleading narratives about America’s past and focus our attention on the many ways racial inequity structures 21st-century life. There are times when you’ll want to throw these books down in a fit of rage over how ugly America can be, but then you’d have to be willing to say goodbye to courageous, thought-provoking characters like Cora, Turner, and Elwood, and miss how their stories end... a Herculean feat of literary self-harm that we’d never advise.
The Nickel Boys
Indiespensable Volume 81
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explores how a self-possessed, college-bound young man named Elwood finds himself wrongfully imprisoned at Nickel Academy. Based on the real Dozier School for Boys, a brutal Florida reform school now infamous for its abusive practices, virulent racism, and secret graveyard, Nickel is a warren of cruel, often pedophiliac guards and neglected children. The campus is segregated, and while both black and white children are treated poorly, the black students are subjected to greater corporal punishment and nutritional, medical, and educational deprivations; in fact, there is a long-running practice of selling the black children’s supplies and labor to local businesses for a tidy profit.
Inspired by his hero, Martin Luther King Jr., Elwood is determined to bring attention to the injustices at Nickel; his friend Turner is less sure, and herein lies one of the novel’s central tensions: Is it possible to implement lasting racial justice, and what is an acceptable human cost? Tacitly, The Nickel Boys
forces the reader to address the fact that while the novel takes place in the Jim Crow South, the problems it exposes — wrongful incarceration, limited access to legal and educational resources, race-based labor exploitation, and the perceived cheapness of black bodies — are alive and well today. The novel highlights the self-sacrifices inherent in both playing it safe and speaking out, and refrains from providing easy answers.
In his New York Times
review, critic Frank Rich notes that The Nickel Boys
offers “an epic account of America’s penchant for paying lip service to its original sin while failing to face its full horror and its undying legacy of recidivism....[Whitehead]...challenges the assumption that we even fathom what happened in our past.” The Underground Railroad
and now The Nickel Boys
redirect our attention to the attitudes and actions of the past that continue to act upon our present. While it is doubtful that he would accept the title, The Nickel Boys
secures Whitehead's position as one of the better angels of our history, forcing us to pause in our forward march to examine what we bring with us, and why.
Check out the rest of our Picks of the Month here