Friday, June 26, 2020

Review: The Nickel Boys

From The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead:

Open quoteThe discovery of the bodies was an expensive complication for the real estate company awaiting the all clear from the environmental study, and for the state’s attorney, which had recently closed an investigation into the abuse stories. Now they had to start a new inquiry, establish the identities of the deceased and the manner of death, and there was no telling when the whole damned place could be razed, cleared, and neatly erased from history, which everyone agreed was long overdue." The Nickel Boys

The story of one of the victims of a 1960s Jim Crow reform school for boys. Fiction based on a real school in Florida. Story arc is depressingly predictable but offers some surprises. A timely contribution to today's Black Lives Matter movement.

Grade: A-

"The Nickel Boys" is the winner of the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. That hype is hard to live up to. Colson Whitehead doesn't reinvent the novel. He doesn't seek to impress with clever language. He lets his story tell itself with straightforward prose. But what a story.

Elwood is an African-American boy in Florida growing up in the Jim Crow era. He learned the difference between our nation's stated ideals and reality from the news and from the streets. He has a love of Martin Luther King, owning an LP record of his speeches that he played over and over. He had a job washing dishes at the Richmond Hotel, where the dining room was reserved for whites. "The morning after the [Brown v. Board of Education] decision, the sun rose and everything looked the same. Elwood asked his grandmother when Negroes were going to start staying at the Richmond, and she said it's one thing to tell someone to do what's right and another thing for them to do it.

Eventually, almost inevitably, Elwood gets sent to the Nickel School for Boys. His supposed offense almost doesn't matter. Let's say it was "living while black." The Nickel School is as you can imagine. It serves both black and white boys, living in segregated dormitories. The black dormitory and classrooms get whatever is left over from the white dormitory, including textbooks, which the white boys, knowing who will get the books after them, fill their pages with racial slurs. Discipline and punishment are arbitrary and harsh. It's less for ensuring justice than for reinforcing the racial order, with the white administrators of course on top.

One unusual aspect of the novel is the way Whitehead telegraphs spoilers but hides details, keeping the reader from being too sure of how Elwood's story will eventually play out. Very early in the novel, in a flash forward, Whitehead reveals the existence of a secret graveyard on the Nickel school grounds, whose discovery and excavation reveal long ago abuses. The excavators show more impatience than horror. "There was no telling when the whole damned place could be razed, cleared, and neatly erased from history, which everyone agreed was long overdue." That graveyard is a dark omen throughout the novel, but plot twists make it difficult to read the meaning of the omen. The whole story is depressing, but it's a timely contribution to today's "Black Lives Matter" movement. The names of the victims may change, the forms it takes may change, but systemic racism persists.

"The Nickel Boys" is available in hardcover and eBook formats from the Richardson Public Library.

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