The old 19th century gaol in Tamworth became a juvenile prison with the ironic title I have given this review of Colson Whitehead’s novel The Nickel Boys. Never more than 20 boys - spooked by the fact of hangings which had once taken place here of adult males - other mistreatment and corruption by the juvenile prison Superintendent who built a weekend retreat on the coast from proceeds he creamed from the accounts - feeding the boys substandard food just a part of the rort - however, mirrored so much of the terrors inflicted on the children of the Nickel Boys “establishment”. It is so terrible and sad the story that I was almost reading through fingers across my eyes. Based on accounts of similar stories in Florida - any juvenile prison - anywhere in the world (google “Don Dale” in Australia’s Northern Territory for example) is little different - bashings, sexual abuse, solitary confinement - and yes, death! Colson’s book should be mandatory reading for every politician, for every judge or magistrate. And be enough added to his already impeccable oeuvre to bring him the Nobel Prize for Literature!
Author: Harvard educated, New York born and bred, African-American novelist and essayist. His fifth novel, The Underground Railroad (2016), was a fictionalised account of a network of secret routes and safe houses in 19th century USA by which slaves from the south escaped to the free northern states and Canada, aided by abolitionists and others sympathetic to their cause. It won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and made Mr Whitehead a household name. The Nickel Boys is his sixth novel.
Premise: In the early 1960s, with Martin Luther King is emerging as a towering figure on the national stage, black teenagers incarcerated in hellish Florida reform school on trivial grounds are “leased out” to local white businessmen for indentured work—slavery by another name—while enduring terrible privation and abuse at the school the rest of the time. Based on the true story, recently uncovered, of a real institution.
Plot: Elwood and Turner struggle to survive oppressive brutality and subjugation. One is relentlessly optimistic, inspired by the words of Dr King, the other not so much. Only one survives. He makes good in New York, and revisits the scene of the crime many years later.
Prose: Up to Mr Whitehead’s usual high standard.
Bottom line: Novels about black Americans during the era of slavery and subsequent Jim Crow period are the US equivalent of holocaust fiction: emotionally draining tales that are challenging to read. As Primo Levi showed, the truth of the holocaust is shocking enough; authorial embellishment is not required. Mr Whitehead adhered to that tenet in The Underground Railroad, which added greatly to its impact on me. In The Nickel Boys, he lets emotion take over at times. I understand why, but took off half a star for it.
4.5★ “ ‘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.