‘The Nickel Boys’ by Colson Whitehead – An Inhuman Reform School


‘The Nickel Boys’ by Colson Whitehead  (2019)  –  212 pages

We must believe in our souls that we are somebody, that we are significant, that we are worthful, and we must walk the streets of life every day with this sense of dignity and this sense of somebody-ness.” – Martin Luther King

This is good advice that applies to all of us. I got this quote straight from ‘The Nickel Boys’ which quotes King several times. The United States has a holiday for Martin Luther King, and ‘The Nickel Boys’ shows us why he is great. The family of Elwood, the main character in the novel, has a phonograph record of Martin Luther King giving a speech at Zion Hill.

Even though you can’t go to FunTown (a local amusement park)”, I want you to know you are as good as anybody who goes to FunTown.” – Martin Luther King

‘The Nickel Boys’ begins in early 1960s when King is still alive. Elwood is a smart conscientious boy who gets put in the Nickel Reform School for Boys in northern Florida through no fault of his own, for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Nickel magnified and refined the cruelty of the world.”

The black inmates at the reform school were kept in separate buildings from the white inmates. There the mistreatment of black inmates was passed down from the slave owners all the way to this reform school in the 1960s.

Their daddies taught them how to keep a slave in line, passed down their 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 brains in the sun, had a way of bringing a buck around, and so did a dark cell, a room aloft in darkness, outside time.”

Elwood gets into a fight trying to keep two bullies from beating up a smaller boy. The authorities don’t ask any questions of the boys and blame all four equally, and Elwood is administered a beating that lands him in the hospital for several weeks.

Even if you avoided trouble, trouble might reach out and snatch you anyway.”

The staff has it in for Elwood in particular, and he gets punished for acting above his station as a black boy.

Colson Whitehead’s descriptions of people, places, and events are always straightforward and matter-of-fact. He never over dramatizes for effect. Thus we readers trust what he says. We readers believe Whitehead when he writes that the black schools used the schoolbooks that were first worn out by the white schools and that some of the white students, knowing the black schools would soon be getting these worn-out test books, would scribble all kinds of racist epithets and pictures in them.

‘Underground Railroad’ was a fine historical novel, but ‘The Nickel Boys’ is even better due to its immediacy and its intensity and a surprising twist at the end.


Grade:    A



4 responses to this post.

  1. I’ve been curious about this one… was The Underground Railway a one-hit-wonder? It seems not…

    Liked by 1 person


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