The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This powerful story needed to be told. That power comes, in part, through Whitehead’s restraint as he tells a fictionalized story about Florida’s notorious Dozier School (called Nickel in the novel) in a straightforward, almost deadpan style. That is, he lets most of the atrocities speak for themselves rather than resorting to purple prose and sentimentality.
Floridians, who grew up in the panhandle and knew Dozier was a hell hole before the authorities knew (or admitted) it was a hell hole, will appreciate the care Whitehead took with his research into the school itself, the environment, and the Tallahassee neighborhood where college-bound Elwood Curtis grew up. The random and unfair vicissitudes of life for African Americans are aptly and horrifyingly demonstrated early on via the event that sends Curtis to the Nickel School.
Yet, I was disappointed in this novel and ended up with mixed feelings about it. One flaw came from the sudden uses of an omniscient author to explain Nickel customs and realities that should have been communicated to readers via dialogue or through the actions of the characters. Suddenly, Whitehead was more reporter than novelist.
Without giving away a spoiler here, suffice it to say that the authorial trickery in several places where the narrative jumps into the future are intolerable. The sections are not only jolting when they suddenly appear out of sequence with the chronological story but mislead the reader so that Whitehead can enhance the drama surrounding Curtis near the end of the novel. The realities here are interesting and make for an engaging subplot that could have been written without lying to the reader.
The protagonist’s near-worship of Dr. Martin Luther King, especially King’s belief that no matter what was done to the African American race, it should return only love–serves as an effective counterpoint throughout the novel. Can Curtis love his tormentors? The Nickel School tests Curtis over and over again, making it difficult for him–and the other “students”–to maintain a true sense of self in a land where the realities inside the school are similar to the realities outside the school.
The book is strong. It could have been stronger. I recommend it in spite of the flaws.
Malcolm R. Campbell grew up in the Florida Panhandle in the era when the novel is set, delivered telegrams in the Frenchtown neighborhood where the protagonist grew up, and saw the Dozier school many times before it became a news story. He mentioned the Dozier school in his short story “Cora’s Crossing,” included in the collection Widely Scattered Ghosts.