Customer Review

5 August 2019
“ ‘Sometimes they take you to the White House and we never see your *ss again.
. . .
Your family asks the school what happened and they say you ran away,’ Turner said.
. . .
‘It’s not how it’s supposed to be,’ Elwood said.

‘Don’t nobody care about supposed-to.’ ”

Based on a real place, the Nickel Academy is a reform ‘school’ in Florida where young Ellwood accidentally finds himself in the early 1960s. He is a bookish boy who lives with his grandmother in New York City and prizes his album of Dr Martin Luther King’s speeches. His parents took off for California, deserting him, and he wants to know what his place in the world could be, should be.

He studies, works after school, is teased by those who find him a goody-goody, but later is amazed to discover there are others who are demonstrating.

“‘Closer. At the demonstration, he had felt somehow closer to himself. For a moment. Out there in the sun. It was enough to feed his dreams.”

He longs for “reform” but ends up in reform school instead.

“‘Everybody’s here because they haven’t figured out how to be around decent people. That’s okay. This is a school, and we’re teachers. We’re going to teach you how to do things like everyone else.’”

Yeah, right. But ‘teachers’ like this are pretty thin on the ground. Nickel doesn’t suffer just from the usual problems of juvenile detention. Its staff includes good ol’ boys who grew up with pride in pre-abolition South and still resent northern laws.

“Their daddies taught them how to keep a slave in line, passed down this brutal heirloom.
. . .
The sons held the old ways close. The state outlawed dark cells and sweatboxes in juvenile facilities after World War II. It was a time of high-minded reform all over, even at Nickel. But the rooms waited, blank and still and airless. They waited for wayward boys in need of an attitude adjustment. They wait still, as long as the sons—and the sons of those sons—remember.”

Keeping slaves in line involved whips, chains, confinement, starvation, and whatever other brutality those sons of their daddies could dream up when they took the boys to the White House, so-called for its white paint. And it didn’t differentiate between whites and blacks.

Anyone who didn’t survive the beatings or was caught escaping ended up as Turner explained, never seen again.

The whites and blacks are segregated, but Jaime gets shifted back and forth. His mother is Mexican, and he gets dark working in the sun, but sitting with the black boys, he stands out. I would say it is darkly funny, the way M*A*S*H was funny, but he’s just a boy.

Ellwood’s friend Turner, from Houston, seems to have a strong sense of self and a way of fitting in wherever he is. He’s a bit wiser than the country boys, a cynic and a realist who doesn’t share Ellwood’s hopeful view of the future. Knows that nobody cares about “supposed-to”.

Sadly, I wasn’t surprised. The story is too common, brutality too pervasive, and children are still the disposable playthings of men. The world is discovering and uncovering more massacre sites and mass graves and evidence of people left to die, from First Nations peoples to war zones (My Lai) to refugees.

Colson Whitehead has exposed this part of American history in a voice that can’t be ignored. Ellwood is such a bright, earnest youth who deserved to make his mark in the world, and I think Whitehead chose a great way to bring this particular story to a close.

Thanks to NetGalley and Little Brown/Fleet for the preview copy of this excellent book.
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