Inspired by the all-too-real Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys (or, the Florida School for Boys) — an odious reform school where slave labor, horrific physical abuse, rape, and murder were all commonplace — Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys is set during the Jim Crow era at the fictional Nickel Academy of Eleanor, Florida. The story concerns the fate of Elwood Curtis, an exceedingly bright and optimistic black teenager who is sent to the institution after unknowingly accepting a ride from a car thief. Because Nickel is segregated (just as the Dozier School was), Elwood is placed with the other black students, where he befriends Jack Turner. Turner is as savvy and tough-minded as our protagonist is not, and much of the novel pits their competing perspectives against each other. Do they try to find a way out of a patently cruel and inhumane situation, no matter the mortal danger posed? Or do they keep their heads down and do what it takes to survive — or, at least, attempt to survive — no matter the cost to their hearts and minds? Will Elwood ultimately convince Turner, or will Turner ultimately convince Elwood? And what hints are there in the book’s intermittent flashes forward into Elwood’s adulthood? In a somewhat paradoxical twist, the book is written with a masterful terseness that nonetheless manages to create an extraordinarily vivid picture in the imagination of the reader. At just over two-hundred pages, this is not a title anyone would refer to as “epically-lengthed,” and yet there is a comparable fullness here. In the hands of most other writers, such an abundance would almost certainly necessitate a much higher page-count. But Whitehead is not most other writers; judged solely on its literary merits, The Nickel Boys is positively jaw-dropping. Given the subject matter, though, the potency of its prose often makes for an overwhelming, even devastating, reading experience. (And, in fact, I read pretty much only one chapter at a time for this very reason.) It is a very necessary one, however, drawing not just on the author’s formidable talent but also important archaeological and oral history research into the Dozier School. Immaculately crafted, singularly illuminating, and altogether unforgettable, The Nickel Boys is that rarest of books: truly essential reading.
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