Book Review: The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead

The Nickel Boys

Colson Whitehead

Doubleday, New York, 2019, $24.95 (Hard).

In his latest novel, “The Nickel Boys,” Pulitzer Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead brought to heart the effects of mass incarceration. He used the fiction genre to examine the effects of forced labor upon children. In the text, the reader witnessed children being exploited by the state of Florida for the purpose of free labor. Whitehead presented two adolescent boys to the reader: Turner, a slightly worldly boy, and Elwood Curtis, a sheltered young man with a “sense of dignity.”

Both boys were targeted due to their economic status and their race, and they were both trapped by an unjust system that was unconcerned with their innocence or guilt, but wholly concerned with their vulnerability. The system of mass incarceration of bodies wanted for labor — especially those who were poor, young, and black — were available in abundance.

Whitehead’s two students met at the Nickel reform school campus. The two boys became friends of necessity, and the need was largely on Elwood’s end; he allowed his “sense of dignity” to involve him in a situation that got him severely beaten by sadistic staff.  The brutal beating left Elwood incapacitated for over two weeks. The cloth from his pants was beaten into his flesh; his wounds healed around the imbedded fabric. He was in the care of a doctor whose treatment consisted of giving aspirin and a nurse who gave minimal care to black patients.

From self-inflicted poisoning, Turner joined Elwood in the school’s hospital. He attempted to help Elwood see the world beyond his “sense of dignity.” However, Elwood felt Turner was badly in need of dignity; the boys influenced each other with neither one convincing the other to change, but solidifying their friendship nonetheless.

After the beating, after witnessing and experiencing numerous other injustices and abuses that no child should ever experience, and after months of Turner’s worldly tutelage, Elwood’s “sense of dignity” remained, but it morphed partially into what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. coined the “capacity to suffer.” Elwood interpreted this as the ability to stay alive after pain,,  but the second part of the dictum, to love those that caused the pain, presented a problem for him.

Elwood saw no dignity in that love. Instead, he planned to attack the oppressor, to destroy the Nickel school: “It’s not an obstacle course,” he said. “You can’t go around it—you have to go through it. Walk with your head up no matter what they throw at you.” Elwood planned to get information to the public about the school. The plan was successful, but he didn’t consider how pervasive Turner’s truth was; “Don’t nobody care about supposed – to. If you call out black Mike and Lonnie, you calling out everyone who lets it happen, too. You ratting on everybody.” The system protected itself, and an adolescent boy’s letter only worked to draw sadistic attention to the child. For attempting to expose the system, Elwood was thrown into solitary confinement, and there he was barley feed and beat at the whim of the staff. The decision had been made to murder him, but Turner intervened.

The effects, the pains of incarceration, stayed with these “students” their entire lives: post-traumatic stress that led to addiction, dereliction, and family abandonment. These boys were denied healthy development. Childhood prisons are stress-filled environments. Colson Whitehead’s fictional boys were targeted and trapped as children. As adults they were thrown into society with a limited capacity and they continued to feed the mass incarceration system.




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