It’s the 1960s in segregated Tallahassee, Florida, and young Elwood Curtis has done everything right: he’s respectful, applies himself at school, and has a job in which he has earned the respect of his white employer. He listens to a record of Dr. Martin Luther King’s speeches so much that he knows them by heart, and as the Civil Rights Movement ramps up throughout the Jim Crow south, he feels the pull towards doing something more. His grandmother, the woman who has raised him and has suffered more loss in her life that most can bear, is horrified by the thought of her grandson as an activist. So Elwood mostly just does in best in school, while his grandmother sets aside money for college. Her grandson would be the first in the family to attend.
That opportunity presents itself much earlier than expected: Elwood is accepted to start taking college classes during his senior year of high school. Everything is going well until it isn’t, and Elwood finds himself at the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reform “school” that looks and sounds like a nice place on the outside but exists in a society that looks the other way when it comes to vulnerable boys — black or white — whose families are far away, if they have families at all.
The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead’s latest novel, may be set in an entirely different era than his previous novel, the Pulitzer-winning The Underground Railroad, but ghosts of the past are never far. Cruelties that are directly descended from the area’s slave-owning history carry over into the Nickel Academy’s present. And the saddest thing is that though the book was inspired by an actual reform school — the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, also located in Florida — it’s not hard to imagine children trapped in similar facilities across the South.
The Nickel Boys is a slim novel that can be finished in a day, but it’s a dark bildungsroman that readers might want to take their time with. I would have liked more towards the end, but it’s still a novel that hits its target well.