Sunday, December 29, 2019

12/29/19: Book Review: The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

As the Civil Rights Movement begins to heat up in the American South, two African American teenagers are sentenced to a hellish reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida. What transforms for them there binds them to each other, and will affect everything they do, think, and dream of for the rest of their lives. 

The Nickel Academy juvenile reformatory was billed as providing physical, intellectual, and moral training to troubled young men. Instead, it was a nightmare. This is a raw tale of survival. The characters are fictional, but the Nickel Academy and the horrors committed there are real. 

Their daddies taught them how to keep a slave in line, passed down this brutal heirloom. Take him away from his family, whip him until all he remembers is the whip, chain him up so all he knows is chains. A term in an iron sweatbox, cooking his brain in the sun, had a way of bringing a buck around, and so did a dark cell, a room aloft in darkness, outside time.
After the Civil War, when a five-dollar fine for a Jim Crow charge—vagrancy, changing employers without permission, “bumptious contact,” what have you—swept black men and women up into the maw of debt labor, the white sons remembered the family lore. Dug pits, forged bars, forbid the nourishing face of the sun. The Florida Industrial School for Boys wasn’t in operation six months before they converted the third-floor storage closets into solitary confinement. One of the handy men went dorm by dorm, screwing in bolts: there. The dark cells remained in use even after two locked-up boys died in the fire of ’21. The sons held the old ways close.
The state outlawed dark cells and sweatboxes in juvenile facilities after World War II. It was a time of high-minded reform all over, even at Nickel. But the rooms waited, blank and still and airless. They waited for wayward boys in need of an attitude adjustment. They wait still, as long as the sons—and the sons of those sons—remember.  

This novel is brilliant in every way a novel can be brilliant. The writing is impeccable, creating a voice that is both powerful and haunting. The characters are fully realized. The story is dark, extraordinary, imaginative, and heartbreaking. More than once I felt like I’d been punched in the gut, yet I couldn’t put it down. I loved and hated this story. This is a brave and needed book written by a rare talent at the top of his game. 

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