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August 2019, Week 3

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 		 [Whitehead’s follow-up to his Pulitzer-winning Underground
Railroad exhumes the unmarked graves of a hellish Florida reform
school.] [https://portside.org/] 

 PORTSIDE CULTURE 

 COLSON WHITEHEAD’S SPARE, RIVETING, HORRIFYING NICKEL BOYS  
[https://portside.org/2019-08-21/colson-whiteheads-spare-riveting-horrifying-nickel-boys]


 

 Constance Grady 
 July 18, 2019
Vox
[https://www.vox.com/culture/2019/7/18/20696706/nickel-boys-colson-whitehead-review]


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 _ Whitehead’s follow-up to his Pulitzer-winning Underground
Railroad exhumes the unmarked graves of a hellish Florida reform
school. _ 

 , 

 

The Nickel Boys
A Novel
By Colson Whitehead
Doubleday
ISBN-13: 978-0385537070

From 1900 to 1973, nearly 100 boys between the ages of 6 and 18 died
at Florida’s Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys
[https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/01/21/463846093/in-final-report-experts-identify-remains-at-notorious-reform-school].
Many of them were buried in unmarked graves, graves found only after
the brutal reform school was finally closed in 2011. The remains of
their bodies showed evidence of beatings and bullet holes. Boys who
had made it out of the school alive told stories of torture and rape
[https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/01/21/463846093/in-final-report-experts-identify-remains-at-notorious-reform-school].

In Colson Whitehead’s searing new novel _The Nickel Boys_
[https://go.redirectingat.com?id=66960X1516588&xs=1&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.amazon.com%2FNickel-Boys-Novel-Colson-Whitehead%2Fdp%2F0385537077],
Dozier School for Boys has been renamed Nickel Academy. “This is a
school, and we’re teachers,” says the superintendent of Nickel
early on to new student Elwood Curtis. “We’re going to teach you
how to do things like everyone else.”

Nickel presents itself again and again as a school: to the state, to
taxpayers, to people like Elwood and his family when Elwood is facing
the chance of jail time and Nickel seems like a better alternative.
But once Elwood is inside Nickel, he knows the truth: Nickel is a
prison. The only difference, Elwood thinks, is that “all the violent
offenders … were on the staff.”

Most of the survivors of the real-life Dozier School who’ve spoken
about their experiences there are white, but forensic evidence
suggests that life was even worse for the black students. Whitehead
centers his story on the black side of campus in the 1960s, and he
builds it around two black students in particular: Elwood Curtis, who
worships Martin Luther King Jr. and believes strongly in the rule of
law, and the enigmatic and cynical Turner.

  
_Nickel Boys_ eases itself back and forth between Elwood’s and
Turner’s perspectives with a deceptive seamlessness that belies how
fundamental their disagreement is. It’s their debates that power the
philosophical heart of the book: When you are at the mercy of horrific
injustice, how do you survive? Do you make it through by believing in
and working for justice — or do you abandon such ideals and just do
whatever it takes to live?

The two main characters of _Nickel Boys_ are philosophical opposites

When Elwood is first arrested, he’s a high school senior on his way
to enroll in some classes at a local community college. He hitches a
ride to the campus, and when the black driver giving him a lift is
pulled over and then arrested for, in essence, driving while black,
Elwood gets arrested too.

Elwood has always fundamentally thought of himself as the kind of
person who doesn’t get into this sort of trouble. He’s the kind of
person who follows the rules and plays whatever game he’s asked to
play, even when it’s rigged against him. At his after-school job at
the neighborhood cigar store, he informs on his classmates when he
catches them stealing candy, although his boss keeps explaining to him
that a little candy theft is built into the overhead and it’s fine
to let it go. His classmates beat him up afterward. At the hotel where
his grandmother works, Elwood finds himself doing all the dishes for
the kitchen staff when they offer to race him through a pile of dirty
dishes.

Elwood believes that the game is fair. It never occurs to him that he
might be getting scammed just by playing in the first place.

So when he arrives at Nickel, Elwood figures that he knows what his
strategy should be. “Everyone back home knew him as even,
dependable,” Whitehead writes. “Nickel would soon understand that
about him, too.” Elwood will keep his head down and follow the
rules, and he is certain that Nickel will reward him by letting him
out.

But Elwood has already lost just by entering Nickel. It’s not a
place that rewards hard work and dependability. It’s a place that
exists to torture. And when Elwood first begins to grasp this idea, he
can’t hold onto it. It upsets his sense of order in the world.
Places like Nickel, he says, are against the law. “State law,”
adds Whitehead, “but also Elwood’s.”

Turner is one of the first students Elwood meets at Nickel, and the
first to try to disabuse him of his ideals. “The key to in here,”
Turner says, “is the same as surviving out there — you got to see
how people act, and then you got to figure out how to get around them
like an obstacle course.”

Unlike Elwood, Turner isn’t the kind of person who is willing to
play a rigged game. At Turner’s neighborhood cigar store, there’s
a street hustler who scams passers-by into playing Pass the Lady
[https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three-card_Monte], but Turner never
gets drawn in. He watches and learns instead. So when he gets to
Nickel, he’s equipped to watch, learn, and keep himself out of
trouble as much as possible.

But as it becomes ever clearer that it might be fatal for both Elwood
and Turner to remain in Nickel, Turner begins to pick up an idealism
of his own, an idealism just as strong and just as dangerous as
Elwood’s.

Nickel is a brutal place, but Colson never lets the reader wallow in
its brutality. The violence of Nickel happens mostly off the page, and
we see it in the edges of images and telling details: the way that
after Elwood is beaten, he keeps thinking about the sound of the
leather strap scraping the ceiling; the way that when Turner can’t
stand working anymore, he eats soap powder to make himself sick so
that he can get a day off. But most insidious of all is the way that
Nickel works its way into the heads of its captives, so that after a
few months there, Elwood considers himself “ruined.”

“He was like one of those Negroes Dr. King spoke of in his letter
from jail,” Whitehead writes, “so complacent and sleepy after
years of oppression that they had adjusted to it and learned to sleep
in it as their only bed.”

Framing everything is the story of the surviving Nickel Boys in the
present day, after the truth of Nickel Academy comes out. “The boys
were old men now,” Whitehead writes, “with wives and ex-wives and
children they did or didn’t talk to, with wary grandchildren who
were brought around sometimes and those whom they were prevented from
seeing.” But when they come together, they find a kind of
redemption: “If it is true for you,” they find, “it is true for
someone else, and you are no longer alone.”

_Nickel Boys_ reads like it’s simple. It’s not.

_Nickel Boys_ is Whitehead’s first novel since his _Underground
Railroad_
[https://www.vox.com/culture/2017/4/10/15249522/colson-whitehead-underground-railroad-pulitzer]
became the book of the year in 2016. (It won the Pulitzer and the
National Book Award, _and_ it was selected for Oprah’s Book Club.)
Like _Nickel Boys_, _Underground Railroad_ was a heavily allegorical
book that used actual historical atrocities to think through race and
trauma, but where _Underground Railroad_ was laced with elements of
surrealism (the Underground Railroad as a literal train, some light
time travel), _Nickel Boys_ is a more straightforwardly realist
historical novel.

_Nickel Boys_ is, in fact, pointedly straightforward and simple.
It’s spare, with the plot stretched tight as a drum around a clean
three-act structure. The argument between Elwood and Turner is so
binary as to feel almost didactic in the beginning. The sentences have
been sanded down to rhythmic, conversational fragments (“Perhaps the
textbooks at the college might be new. Unscarred. Nothing to cross
out. It was possible.”), and when Whitehead slips from Elwood’s
voice to Turner’s and back again, he does it so smoothly that he
tricks you into thinking that it’s effortless.

But all that simplicity is just part of Whitehead’s trick. There’s
something else going on here, something terrible and heartbreaking,
and when Whitehead at last eases it out into the open, he does it so
beautifully that, reading, I found myself catching my breath.

_Nickel Boys_ is more than the sum of its parts, and its parts are
beautifully constructed to begin with. But as beautiful and thoughtful
as it is, it never lets you forget that it is built around a true
atrocity, around something that should never have happened. It’s a
book that rests on top of almost 100 unmarked graves.

	*
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