I just finished reading Colson Whitehead’s new literary historical fiction, The Nickel Boys, and oh – what a novel.
Last year I read Whitehead’s Pulitzer-winning book The Underground Railroad (you can read my review here) and loved it, but I think this one is even better.
It tells the story of Elwood Curtis, a young African American kid in Tallahassee who keeps out of trouble, studies hard, aspires to do great things and worships Martin Luther King Jnr. He finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time – literally – and winds up at a draconian reform school for boys, where horrific punishments are metered out without cause and life is unbearably grim.
What a loveable character poor Elwood is. The more the school tries to drag him down, the more he finds strength in the prose of Martin Luther King Jnr, trying to live up to his assertion that ‘throw us in jail, and we will still love you.’
So much detail is given about Elwood and his friend Turner’s plights, that I kept feeling it was based on fact rather than a fictional piece. In fact, the novel is based on a real reform school in Florida, where boys were killed and their remains thrown in shallow graves in a paddock; only to be dug up a few years ago by archaeology students. So while Whitehead’s searing novel is a work of fiction, it draws on the devastating reality suffered by boys at the hands of cruel staff over decades.
I cried at the end of this novel and felt genuinely bereft. I know I will read it again; I feel that there will be more to pick up, the second time around.
I couldn’t rate this book more highly, and I recommend it to all to read. As an aside, it would be a great one for a book club!
Reviewed by Celeste