Gut Punched: The Nickel Boys

Originally published September 1, 2019

A one-word review of “The Nickel Boys” by Colson Whitehead? Profound.

But why stop at one word when there are so many more to choose from? Devastating. Gut wrenching. Disturbing. Honest. Whitehead’s follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize-winning (and still on my bucket list) The Underground Railroad, takes its setting and storyline straight from the news — the Dozier School for Boys in Florida (Another good article here.). Set primarily in the early 60s, readers follow the story of Elwood Curtis, a confident, forward-thinking young black boy living with his grandmother until being in the wrong place at the wrong time lands him in Nickel Academy for a reformatory stint.

Inside the Academy, Elwood is confronted with daily injustices he had become passionate about protesting in his youth. And while the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King educated and motived young Elwood on the outside, at the Nickel Academy, he learns quickly there is no one you can count on except for yourself when it comes to survival.

The abuses that happen upon Elwood and his friends inside the Academy are the kind that, if portrayed on film, would have you looking away. Brutal to its core, it’s impossible to believe the scenes on paper are drawn from historical fact. I know I have a long way to go in understanding racism in depth (which is why Igeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race is a must-read) but it’s beyond me how people of any color or creed have the physical, mental and emotional capacity to carry out the atrocities described here upon a person that is different from them.

It’s impossible not to sound a little ridiculous being a stereotypical middle-aged Caucasian woman insisting that all of her friends read a story about racial injustice, but honestly, stories like these should be required reading for anyone that thinks reparations shouldn’t apply to them because they never owned slaves. The collective legacy left by those even just a few branches back on some of our family trees is nauseating.

For as awful as all of this sounds, though, this book is an incredibly moving read. It will be forever and a day before Elwood and Turner escape my thoughts. Whitehead has crafted a tale about friendship, understanding and honor. I am so, so glad I took the time to read this.

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