The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

Elwood Curtis is a young black man who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time: he is hitching a ride to college for free evening classes only to discover that the car is stolen and both the driver and Elwood are picked up by the police. Elwood finds himself sent to a reform school called Nickel that looks OK on the outside but of course the cruelty, abuse, starvation, corruption and pure greed that goes on inside is what does the damage.

There are only four ways of getting out of Nickel, one of them doing your time, becoming 18, escaping (not the most successful) and then Elwood comes up with another way. Write a letter to the people who are inspecting the school telling them about life in there, not the life on show with all the boys in new uniforms and decent food served three times a day. This event is the turning point and Elwood and his friend Turner escape to prevent another beating that would probably kill Elwood.

He had betrayed Elwood by handing over that letter. He should have burned it and talked him out of that fool plan instead of giving him silence. Silence was all the boy ever got. He says “I’m going to take a stand,” and the world remains silent


The writing is very quiet and restrained when telling us about the abuse that went on in the school and what Colson does very well is show us that the school is a magnifying glass for society. Here, in the school, we have power handed to a few white people who then abuse that power for their own ends. The rules are petty, unwritten and hang over everything. Punishement is taken for the pleasure of those dishing it out and the dead bodies are buried on a plot of land owned by the school. The rumour is that these boys went ‘home’. Lies and corruption are the rockbed of the school’s survival – those who benefit are the same ones who undertake quality control and pocket the money. As ever, some are getting rich at the expense of others and this surely is partly what racism is all about.

The book was inspired by a true story, although the characters are fictional, The Dozier School for Boys in Florida was shut in 2011 – that seems far too recent – and although the story is set in the 60s, it is a story for our times. Here in the UK we had the laundrys for unmarried mothers in Ireland, we have Haut de la Garenne, Jersey Home for Boys, where the children were killed and burned and we have all the children in Bradford and surrounding areas who were groomed and abused systematically with the institutions who were responsible for their care ignoring the situation going on around them. The silence is everywhere.

This is not a roller-coaster of a book where your emotions are up and down, it is a quiet, plainly told story of absolute horror and it is excellent. No wonder it won the Pulitzer Prize in 2020.

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