19 August 2021

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

I picked this book up completely randomly when shopping for Christmas. It was stickered as $15 and when I took a closer look I noticed it won the Pulitzer Prize in 2020 for fiction. I was hesitant to start it because the subject matter seemed so bleak, but when Colson Whitehead's other Pulitzer winner The Underground Railroad came out as an Amazon Prime series, I decided it was time to check out his writing.  

The book opens up by introducing the main character named Elwood. He's a young black student who works part-time at a corner store and plans to take some university courses. Elwood is obsessed with Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. He is constantly listening to recordings of King's speeches and has most of them memorized. He often reflects on the ideas King addressed in his speeches like forgiveness and perseverance. 

Reading the book you know things are not going to go as planned for Elwood, and when he gets arrested for riding in a vehicle that was stolen (unbeknownst to him) the judge decides on the Nickel Academy reform school for punishment. 

Now he worked on a new theory: There was no higher system guiding Nickel's brutality, merely an indiscriminate spite, one that had nothing to do with people. A figment from tenth-grade science struck him: a Perpetual Misery Machine, one that operated by itself without human agency. Also, Archimedes, one of his first encyclopedia finds. Violence is the only lever big enough to move the world." 

The school is divided up between a white campus and a black campus. All of the students receive abuse, but the black students are definitely subjected to the worst of it. Early on Elwood is brutally beaten and it leaves his legs permanently scarred. There are rumors throughout the school that whenever a student "escapes" or "goes missing" he's really been tied up to two metal rings attached to a tree and beaten to death. 

The readers learn almost immediately that this is more than just a rumor. The book begins with an excavation that uncovers tons of dead bodies buried behind the school. This was particularly tough to read because of all the news coming out about mass graves being uncovered in Canada's residential schools. 

Colson Whitehead

Whitehead introduces a variety of different characters at the school and how they interact with Elwood. One of these boys is named Turner and is much more cynical than Elwood. The boys argue throughout their shared time at Nickle about right and wrong, with Elwood becoming more and more convinced that he can bring Nickel down. I really liked all the interactions between Elwood and Turner and seeing how their belief systems differ. Their friendship also felt like the only glimmer of happiness in the story. 

Turner wasn't angry that Jaimie lied to their faces. He admired liars who kept on lying even though their lies were obvious, but there was nothing anyone could do about it. Another proof of one's powerlessness before other people." 

I don't want to say any more about the plot of the book because I found the ending of the story actually shocking. Whitehead is a really talented writer and it does not surprise me that he wont the Pulitzer for fiction TWICE within the last five years. I am definitely interested in picking up more of his writing and would recommend it to anyone. 

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