Book Review: The Nickel Boys

6 Min Read

Labiba Kabir

A coherent, dense and lucidly dramatised account of systemic racism in America is brought to light through The Nickel Boys. Ever wondered how the segregation period around the 1930s was like for people of colour in The United States of America? What was it like to grow up in an era where you had to be ordered to take your seat at the back of the bus, having to step aside for white people in the streets, to always be seated at the back of the cinema halls just because of your skin colour? Being framed in legal cases as the media antagonised people of colour.

Portraying them as coming from downtown, from a world of crack, welfare, guns, knives, indifference, and ignorance, they were made out to be crawling out from the wild province of the poor, and driven by a collective fury bringing in the rippling energies of youth, their minds teeming with violent images. But the discrepancy in the image lies in how justice has been served wrong, day after day;  just to obey the oppressing party that sits on the throne of indistinguishable racist and misogynistic white supremacy and other regressive policies. At this moment, reading and learning about them might seem like it’s in the distant past but it really doesn’t belong to ancient history. Not so long ago, New York Times ran a spread about a lynching that took place sometime in the 40’s of which the victim was Elwood Higginbotham.

Based on a brutal Florida reform school, this tightly wrought novel demonstrates to superb effect how racism in America has long operated as a codified and sanctioned activity.
Colson Whitehead, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and National Book Award for Fiction for his book Underground Railroad, brings into literacy an actual historical atrocity through a straightforwardly realist novel – The Nickel Boys. The book, albeit reads so simple throughout, it’s not. It is so much more than that. Whitehead has a gift of capturing a person’s essence in short accounts. It is one of his tricks that gives the novel a simplicity during an event of something terrible and heart wrenching happening, beautifully constructing it on top of almost one hundred unmarked graves, the poison directly derived from white privileges.

One of the protagonists of The Nickel Boys is Elwood Curtis. Growing up at the time of Brown v. Board of Education, listening and holding in heart the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr., he tries to reflect on the world the same views as of the peaceful protesters marching on the streets of America today. For someone whose parents abandoned him and being raised by his grandmother only, Elwood really was an ideal child. Working hard and always getting good grades, he managed to get attention from one of his teachers who managed to get him free classes at a college south of Tallahassee. However, in the process of hitchhiking, Elwood picked a driver who turned out to be a car thief and, being at the wrong place at the wrong time, he got sent to Nickel.

El meets Turner who seems to have learnt the reality of survival faster than most. He was at home in whatever scene he found himself in. The affable, kind and artful boy bobbed in his own pocket of peace and calm. Turner, unlike Elwood, was not obsessed with MLK Jr.’s notion of how things should work in reality. He was more clear-eyed about how things did work. At Nickel, boys were supposed to be able to advance their release through keeping a good behaviour. But with Turner’s help, El understood that it was not applicable for POC like him. His release entirely depended on the whims of the white person in charge. The academy was a microcosm of the corrupt world brainwashed in favour of the white and privileged people.

The Nickel Boys was inspired by the true story of the Arthur G Dozier School for boys which had numerous reports and investigations including excavation of unmarked graves of crushed bodies that were the result of monstrous beatings, tortures, rapes and mutilations, then disposed of like garbage. The terrorising century plus the reign of Dozier only came to an end in 2011, but the hidden story only came to light during an excavation in 2014. Almost 111 years later, survivors like Turner and other people came forward to testify against the system of the school.

This book by Whitehead is like a mission to remind the people how the BLM movement is overdue. He asks implicitly that even after the abundance of fiction, nonfiction, documentaries and cases like Jim Crow’s, mass incarceration, “I can’t breathe” or Nickel Academy, why there is still so little result in erasing the effects of racism.


Labiba is a postmillennial chaotic neutral who obsesses over memes and Netflix. 

Share this Article
Leave a comment