The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

The Nickel Boys is a tense and memorable novel about an awful reform school and an idealistic boy who finds himself there. Elwood Curtis, an outsider brought up by his strict grandmother and stirred up by the words of Martin Luther King, is about to start taking college level classes and dreams of something better. But one unlucky circumstance in the face of prejudice lands Elwood in The Nickel Academy, which purports to improve and reform its inmates, but really is a horrific place where abuse, corruption, and students disappearing are the norm. Elwood looks for a way to keep his idealism in spite of this which his friend Turner thinks is unmanageable, and the violence of The Nickel Academy will affect them all.

This is a masterful novel, carefully weaving together the past and present of the narrative and the history of a real reform school similar to Whitehead’s depiction of Nickel Academy. It uses a single personal story with terrible consequences to expose what happened to children, with the backdrop of segregation and the civil rights movement. As with Colson’s previous novel The Underground Railroad, it is quietly devastating whilst looking at a specific piece of US history and the resonances with contemporary America.

The Nickel Boys is a much anticipated novel that lives up to the anticipation and will no doubt be one that people will be talking about, not only due to the subject matter and writing style, but also the memorable and gripping character of Elwood himself. It is an intense and powerful novel that is cleverly written and carefully plotted.