The Nickel Boys

Are we so busy patting ourselves on the back for the headway that’s been made, that we fail to see the huge unfairness that remains?

Author: Colson Whitehead

Where did I get this book: Bought with the leaving my sensible job Waterstones gift voucher

Finished on: 9 August 2020

The Nickel Boys begins with the discovery of an unofficial, secret graveyard full of the dead bodies of black boys whose deaths were never marked, let alone investigated.

The discovery is inconvenient for the real estate company that’s developing the land and, much as they’d like to quietly fill in it, pretend it never happened and get on with the business of making money, they have to stop and allow archaeologists to painstakingly unearth the bodies and learn what they can about what happened to the boys.

The graveyard formed part of the Nickel Academy, a kind of borstal reform school. In the main story of the book, we join our hero, Elwood Curtis , when he’s straight-A student with a love of Martin Luther King and ambitions to go to college and build a good life for himself. It’s one of those excruciating wrong place and the wrong time scenarios for Elwood as he’s implicated in a crime he had nothing to do with, and ends up in Nickel.

What Whitehead does so brilliantly, though, is demonstrate that, for a black teenager like Elwood, everywhere is the wrong place at that time. Yes, Nickel is a brutal and corrupt institution for all its students, or inmates. But this is the era of segregation and the cruelty meted out to the black boys on their side of the academy is horrific.

Whitehead’s writing is quite something. It’s not that he downplays or understates the awfulness of events at Nickel for Elwood, his good friend Turner and the other boys, exactly. It’s more that he’s so matter-of-fact about it all. This is just how it is; this is what life is like for young black men. And is it really so different now?

Whitehead has talked about the fact that The Nickel Boys is set during a period, the 1950s to 60s, when many people felt real progress had been made towards a fairer society, that Elwood lived in an era when things were moving slowly forward. But, this book lays bare the total inadequacy of that progress, when the inequality is still so gross.

In this way, he holds a mirror up to our world today. Are we so busy patting ourselves on the back for the headway that has been made, that we fail to see the huge unfairness that remains?

There are some moments of beautiful, quiet contemplation in this book on what the best way to deal with the pains of the past might be. But, in the end, if we want to move forward, we have to unearth the bodies and learn whatever we can.

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