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Peak storytelling: The Nickel Boys

The first thing that struck me about Colson Whitehead’s new novel, The Nickel Boys, was the beautiful simplicity of the cover. A large red square with a white border and two young Black men standing at the edge of the red – it is ART.

The second thing that struck me about this book was that it was released in July when it’s likely to be a heavy hitter come awards season. It is surprising to me that a book with this much publishing heft behind it wasn’t held for October.

Lucky for us that we get to read this so much sooner.

You have to be ready for this book though. It will destroy you.

The Nickel Boys is based on the real-life reform school in Florida that operated for 111 years, devastating the lives of thousands of children.

the nickel boys

Elwood Curtis is college-bound. Living with his grandmother in the Black enclave of Frenchtown in segregated Tallahassee, Elwood has big dreams for himself. Listening to the speeches of Dr Martin Luther King, he takes the idea that he is as good as anyone else to heart. One bad decision, an innocent mistake, and he is sentenced to time at the Nickel Academy, a reform school that will provide the intellectual and moral training their delinquent charges lack.

In reality, the ‘school’ is a chamber of horrors that sexually and physically abuses the children in its care (I cannot stress enough that the students were CHILDREN). Elwood figures if he keeps his head down and ‘does his time’, he can get out of there and move on with his life relatively quickly. But seeing only the good in the world is next to impossible in a place like the Nickel Academy and alongside his friend Turner, Elwood has to make some difficult decisions to survive.

Colson Whitehead is a master storyteller at the peak of his craft. Every page, every paragraph, every word has been chosen to cause maximum damage to his reader. Whitehead spares none of us with this story. The abuse depicted is so casual, you almost miss it! You almost miss heinous descriptions of abuse because Whitehead wants you to understand the everyday reality faced by these kids. It was just a part of their day-to-day! I think that by doing it this way, he makes The Nickel Boys palatable to a wider audience. You can’t dismiss this one as too graphic to read. And this story needs to be read, it’s important.

The Nickel Boys is a marvel of storytelling from beginning to end. When I got to end, when I realized how all the pieces fit together to form a DEVASTATING conclusion, I sobbed. Straight up sobbed. It’s the kind of book that knocked the breath right out of me.

I can see this book as a movie or a mini-series. It has HBO or Oscar-bait written all over it should that happen. It’s the story from a dark chapter in American history, told by one of America’s best story-tellers. If you haven’t read it already, I cannot stress enough that you need to.

Thanks to Penguin Random House of Canada for providing me with an ARC of this book in exchange for honest reviews.