“Elwood never ceased to marvel how you could walk around and get used to seeing only a fraction of the world. Not knowing you only saw a sliver of the real thing.”
I don’t often, matter of fact, I don’t think I’ve ever, pre-ordered a book. But I promptly and without hesitation pre-ordered Colson Whitehead’s new book, The Nickel Boys. It’s a decision I don’t regret, except when I traveled to Europe over the summer and found the book in paperback, but I digress. When the book arrived promptly courtesy of Amazon Prime shipping, I sat down the next day and was consumed. Book devoured in ONE DAY.
In The Nickel Boys, Whitehead relates the story of young Elwood, raised by his grandmother, full of hope and optimism as he looks at his future and that of other black people who have suffered discrimination and abuse. The speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King stir in Elwood’s heart the desire to do something, not to be a passive observer as he follows the Civil Rights Movement. Elwood’s grandmother is proud of him but doesn’t want him to involve himself in anything that could endanger his future; to finish school, go to college and make something of himself. While it’s important to want change in a world mired with injustice, its equally important to Elwood’s grandmother for him to be sensible in securing his future.
The story progresses quickly to the point when Elwood has an opportunity to take some college classes. I felt like a proud relative, excited for what Elwood would be able to accomplish as his future begins to take shape. But knowing a little bit about the book, my dreams turn into the worst of nightmares. As soon as Elwood hitch hikes in a stolen car with a seemingly nice guy, I know his life will change forever. My heart beats rapidly in anticipation because this shouldn’t be happening but it is. Elwood is sent to a reform school called Nickel Academy. And from this point forward, my heart is shredded. To pieces. Many, many pieces.
In less than 250 pages, Whitehead introduces us to the existence Elwood and other young boys at Nickel Academy endure. Whitehead masterfully shares the stories and the tragedies succinctly, respectfully. This unforgettable book was inspired by the boys reform school that operated in Florida from 1900 to 2011, where boys were abused in horrific ways.
At Nickel, Elwood meets other young men who offer advice on how one can make it out of there alive because many don’t. Turner, one young man, is frustrated by Elwood’s naivety and optimism.
“You think you can do that? Watch and think? Nobody else is going to get you out–just you.”
While reading this book, I wanted to put it down and process everything. But I couldn’t bring myself to leave these boys. They didn’t leave my mind and heart. Elwood and Turner. The unnamed boys, the forgotten boys. I’m terrified by the cruel and seemingly unfathomable reality of the events this book was based on. I applaud Whitehead for paying homage to the survivors and to those who remained unnamed in dignity and respect.
Although fictional, Whitehead gives voice to the many young boys like them, who suffered diabolical treatment at this supposed reform school. I could not concentrate on anything else. I kept wondering why was something so barbaric allowed to happen? Even Elwood realized it was wrong and wanted to tell someone, but no one was listening. No one cared enough to make sure this didn’t happen. Over and over again. Was Elwood too optimistic, too hopeful for REAL change? Or was Turner right, to keep your head down, survive and just get out?
Over 50 years later, is there much difference? When what happened at a reform school like Nickel–unrestrained violence, abuse, mistreatment, and untold injustices that have literally been buried in a field behind a school? To find out that the school Whitehead based the story and characters operated until 2011?
“You can change the law but you can’t people and how they treat each other.”