93. ‘Nickel Boys’ by Colson Whitehead

My second read from this author and it’s another stunner, as deeply traumatic to read as was ‘The Underground Railroad’ and while once again focusing attention on the appalling injustices and abuse suffered by black Americans, this time set in the 20th century in a juvenile reform facility. It is based in reality – the Dozier School in Florida, which only closed in 1981. After numerous reports and an investigation including the excavation of unmarked graves, it was revealed that 81 boys had died there. And although the author clearly states that this book is fictional, it opens with a similar scene as unmarked graves are found to contain nameless bodies, many with severe injuries.

Elwood Curtis is a nice, intelligent and courteous black Southern boy who has a dream, like his idol, Martin Luther King, whose speeches he has absorbed from a vinyl recording. Raised by his grandmother, he is working hard to save enough to attend college – he will be the first in his family to do so – and is inspired by the civil rights movement to believe that the world can be a better place, having been introduced to it by one of his teachers.

However, as often still happens to young black men, he is implicated in a crime he played no part in and is sent to the Nickel Academy where his hopes of a higher education founder on the rocks. He has entered a system that is designed to brutally beat him down, and the descriptions of his experiences there beggar belief and yet ring terribly true.

Elwood still believes in justice though, and determines to work towards an early release by following the doctrines of Martin Luther King – there is apparently a way to earn early release through good behaviour, but no one can work out how the system of merits and demerits works, and ultimately, he and his closest friend, Turner, realise there is no system at all. Turner is not interested in Dr King’s dream – he understands that for a black boy in the South, the only system is at the whim of white people, and that the Nickel School is in reality just a microcosm of the cruelty and unfairness of the world outside.

The prose is clear and understated yet incredibly powerful, casting a brutal light on the horrors and injustices of American racism. The author doesn’t dwell on the sadistic beatings but relates them in a matter of fact tone which only serves to emphasise the matter of fact way in which they were carried out. And that’s only one of the haunting, disturbing elements of this incredible book.

There is a huge plot twist at the end of the novel about which I can say nothing without ruining the book for you – and I would certainly encourage you to read it yourself, whatever colour your skin. One of the most unforgettable books I have ever read. Go find a copy!