Review: The Nickel Boys
I know we’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but I’m guilty of it. I know, I shouldn’t do it. But a well-designed cover will draw my attention more than not, and the cover of The Nickel Boys did just that. There’s just something about the three-color scheme with that huge red color block, and all of that negative space. It wasn’t until after reading the book that I even noticed what was happening with the shadows, and knowing the ending of the book – dang.
All this is to say, the cover drew me in before I even knew what the book was about.
When Elwood Curtis, a black boy growing up in 1960s Tallahassee, is unfairly sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy, he finds himself trapped in a grotesque chamber of horrors. Elwood’s only salvation is his friendship with fellow “delinquent” Turner, which deepens despite Turner’s conviction that Elwood is hopelessly naive, that the world is crooked, and that the only way to survive is to scheme and avoid trouble. As life at the Academy becomes ever more perilous, the tension between Elwood’s ideals and Turner’s skepticism leads to a decision whose repercussions will echo down the decades.
Based on the real story of a reform school that operated for 111 years and warped the lives of thousands of children, The Nickel Boys is a devastating, driven narrative that showcases a great American novelist writing at the height of his powers.
I was a little cautious in approaching The Nickel Boys because I tried to read another one of Colson Whitehead’s, The Underground Railroad, and found it difficult to read due to his writing style. This one, thankfully, seemed easier to read and it took little effort before I was enveloped into the world of Elwood.
In the prologue, the first sentence is: “Even in death the boys are trouble.” Immediately, we the readers learn that something incredibly evil happened in this school that had just shut down. Archeologists were sent to the property, and they end up digging multiple bones of past students. That’s … definitely not a typical sight to see in a school. So what exactly happened in the Nickel Academy?
We take a step back to 1962. The main character, teenager Elwood, is a goody-two-shoes that I can relate to. He tries to do the right thing in a world full of wrong. And during the era of Jim Crow, there’s a lot of that going around. When he finds himself unfairly sent to the Nickel Academy, a juvie school, I couldn’t help but be curious as to how he’s going to survive being in a school full of delinquents. It becomes more and more clear that it wasn’t other students he should be worried about.
While a fairly short read at just under 220 pages, The Nickel Boys tells the story of the students of the Nickel Academy in a painfully beautiful way. It opened my eyes to a world that I knew nothing about. It made me question how the school system actually works, and why it took so long for the villains of the story to receive consequences, if any.
I suppose that’s a telltale sign of any good book – if it leaves an imprint on you days after finishing. The Nickel Boys surely did.