Colston Whitehead’s most recent novel The Nickel Boys is one of those novels for which the descriptors “good” and “bad” seem almost irrelevant – although it is, by my lights and for what it’s worth, very good. Its protagonist is a young Black boy named Elwood living in 1960s Florida. A devotee of Martin Luther King, he’s set to become the first person in his family to go to college – only, on his way there, he’s arrested for a crime he didn’t commit and sent to Nickel Academy, a reform school.
From there, the novel charts his attempts to survive – and not just survive but live – in a system deliberately designed to break people like him. Nickel Academy has its share of terrible secrets: the selling of supplies meant for its Black students to line its governors’ pockets; the beatings; the official graveyard and its unofficial counterpart, excavated by modern-day archaeologists at the beginning of the book. In theory Nickel’s inmates should be able to earn their way out through good behaviour and good grades. In practice those inmates, and especially the non-white inmates, are set up to fail.
The Nickel Boys is based on a true story: that of the Arthur G Dozier school for boys, excavated in 2014. So in a sense the novel is an act of witnessing, twice over: its real-world witnessing of rarely-narrated institutional abuses reflects a witnessing inside the story. Without spoiling a gut-punch twist, the novel is structurally a witnessing of Elwood’s life, his attempts to live by his principles and his abiding, seemingly unkillable belief in freedom.
It seems trite to say it, but it’s a witnessing that’s exceedingly topical now, when America and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the Western world are reckoning with a history built on colonialism and structural oppression. The Nickel Boys brings to light a nasty piece of the past that’s rarely discussed or remembered in mainstream culture; a symbolic undoing of the erasure that racist systems inflict upon their victims. It’s a good book to read right now.