~~If you haven’t already read the book and wish to avoid major spoilers, finish the book and come back to this review.~~
To win the Pulitzer Prize once is an achievement, but to win it a second time is a truly incredible feat. In the Pulitzer’s over 100-year history, only four writers have ever won the award more than once. They include the likes of Booth Tarkington, John Updike, William Faulker, and now Colson Whitehead for his 2019 novel, “The Nickel Boys.”
The book deserves all the praise it gets for its quality characters and rich setting. Yet it is how the book deals with systems of power and oppression where I found the most fascinating material.
Colson Whitehead’s “The Nickel Boys”: A Summary
In 2012, The University of Southern Florida did a study of Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys and began to uncover a whole collection of unmarked graves on the school’s campus. Set in the 1960s, the novel takes place in a fictionalized version of the Florida reform school named “Nickel Academy” where main character Elwood, a boy with both good morals and a strong work ethic, gets sent to.
Elwood finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time when he takes a ride from a man in a stolen car. The cops, the judges, and everyone who isn’t his family refuse to believe that he wasn’t an accomplice, and he gets sent to the reform school as punishment.
The admirable qualities found of Elwood form a harsh contrast against the school’s violent and oppressive system. If the young boys want to study and take their time seriously inside the academy, they are given remedial lessons well below their intelligence lesson. If the young boys do something that aggravates the guards, they will take you out back to what the novel refers to as “the white house” where they whip the young boys with leather belts until they have taken some of their flesh.
While recovering in the infirmary after one of these beatings, Elwood meets fellow student, Turner, a repeat member of nickel academy in his second year. After meeting, the two become inseparable, working together to face the many hopes and horrors that Nickel Academy has to offer as they each try to make it through the year alive.
Turner provides a strong contrast to Elwood. Where Elwood studies hard and tries to face the system with force of will, Turner runs away from hardship whenever the opportunity arises. The dynamic between Elwood’s optimism and Turner’s cynicism provides the novel its teeth as part of the day-to-day living inside of Nickel Academy.
“The Nickel Boys” and “The Fifth Way”
This novel has a lot to say about race, the south in the 1960s, and violence, but one of the central themes of the story is Elwood’s struggle with oppressive systems. Even before Elwood ended up in Nickel Academy, he spent his free time listening to recordings of Martin Luther King Jr. and King’s movement against the Jim Crow south.
King and his words offer a sort of parallel for Elwood, grounding a lot of Elwood’s determination in the real-world struggle at the time. But a pivotal moment comes three quarters of the way through the book when Elwood decides he wants to leave Nickel Academy. But it’s not his desire to leave that is worthy of his analysis, but how Elwood intends to do it.
The narrator lays out four ways to leave Nickel Academy. First, Serve your time.In other words, wait out the remainder of your one—year term or turn 18 years old and age out of the program. Second, the court might intervene because of a long lost relative, allowing the student to go home early. Third, you could die. Whether that be through violence of the system or your own personal means. Fourth, a student could run away and try their luck.
Each of these options has certain risks and certain appeals, but Elwood remained unsatisfied with any of these options for leaving. Too many of them risked death or a wound to his sense of self, his principles. So Elwood devises a fifth way of leaving Nickel Academy: To get rid of Nickel Academy.
It is in Elwood’s proposed fifth way that the novel provides its greatest strength and greatest shortfall. Taking down the cruel and oppressive system seems to come as a welcomed reaction to living under such cruel systems, and a very appropriate one when considering Elwood’s hero, Martin Luther King Jr., was also challenging wider systems at the same time. But where MLK became revolutionary in his words and in his actions, Elwood’s are less so.
The fifth way that Elwood champions ends up being to give a notebook full of observations to an authority outside of the Nickel Academy system, an inspector working for the state of Florida. It is not stated why in the novel, but the plan does not work.
Somehow, the state inspector rats Elwood out to the system and he gets taken to the white house where he would most likely die. His friend Turner busts him out and the two boys run away from the academy together until Elwood gets shot. Turner then takes on Elwood’s identity and lives in New York City until the truth about the Nickel Academy is revealed 50 years later.
An Analysis of “The Nickel Boys”
Much of “The Nickel Boys” is based on fact, but what is important to note about the novel is that it is still fiction. If you want a nonfiction account of the real Dozier, there are multiple books and even a Netflix documentary.
So, even though the world presented in “The Nickel Boys” is based on facts, it is still an invention of the author. That doesn’t mean there isn’t truth to be found in these pages. There is still real struggle and real heart break that can be found in every word which cannot be discounted, but that doesn’t stop the novel’s plot or characters from being a deliberate choice.
What the ending of the story seems to suggest is that oppressive systems cannot be beaten. Oppressive systems can kill you, they can break your spirit, or they can be run away from, but only an idealist fool would believe you could actually overthrow systems of cruelty. That the best a person can hope for is to survive an escape attempt and hope to live a better life somewhere else? Possibly as your dead friend? Maybe this type of pessimism is the only rational reaction in a world of cruelty where young black men are no longer sent to pseudo-prisons, like the Dozier school, and instead into real prisons.
But what if instead of running away, the young boys banded together and attempted to overthrow the Nickel Academy themselves? It would have been a very different book, but that’s the point. As a work of fiction the novel can invent itself in a number of different ways, not just in the most pessimistic terms. If Elwood is morally inspired by MLK, it can seem inconsistent that he does not try to be revolutionary like MLK was during his lifetime. And what about the contemporary Black Lives Matter movement? Is the failure of this movement inevitable in the face of a cruel and apathetic elite?
While the book does not set out to ask these questions or answer them, it is important as readers to ask them for ourselves. “The Nickel Boys” is a set of characters and circumstances far removed from our own. The reality of the novel is a truthful one, but it is not the only way reality has to be. Personal gripes aside, “The Nickel Boys” is a wonderful little book and deserves the praises it receives. It is a must-read for anyone who considers themselves a fan of American letters.