Colson Whitehead’s newest novel, The Nickel Boys (Doubleday, 2019), is a searing glimpse into The Nickel Academy, a juvenile reform “school” for boys in Florida. Although, Whitehead’s novel is a work of fiction, it is loosely based on the Dozier School for Boys, which operated in the Florida panhandle from 1900-2011. Whitehead was inspired by Ben Montgomery’s reporting series in the Tampa Bay Times, which chronicled the stories of unmarked graves, terrorized survivors and a brutal history of assault, rape and abuse at the hands of staff members. An investigation into the school was launched by the state of Florida after a failed inspection. The state authorized an anthropological survey of the school due to the high number of deaths and unmarked graves found on the campus’ premises. The team from University of South Florida eventually discovered 55 burials on the grounds, many out of the designated cemetery. They have also forensically substantiated 100 deaths at the school. Identification of many of the bodies continues to this day.
The gruesome history of the Dozier School lays the back-drop of Whitehead’s narrative about Elwood Curtis, a black youth growing up in the 1960’s Tallahassee. Raised by his morally fastidious grandmother, Harriet, Elwood doesn’t mesh with many of the local boys in his neighborhood. He spends hours and hours listening to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches. A high-achieving student, Elwood earns an opportunity to take a couple of local college courses for free. While hitchhiking to his first college class, Elwood is arrested for car theft and is sentenced to Nickel Academy.
Elwood’s internalized sense of purpose often stands in stark contrast to his peers at Nickel, many of whom have encountered as much trauma and abuse in their home lives as at the school. By defending a weaker kid who is being bullied by older boys and by requesting additional work from an uninterested teacher, Elwood draws the unwelcome attention of school administrators. His reward for such actions is a brutal beating during the dead of night, in the white house, a shack on the school’s property exclusively designated for torturing students. His first visit to the white house is so vicious that it lands him in the school’s hospital for a week.
Amid the ongoing cruelty of the school, a source of hope and stability for Elwood is the friendship that he forms with Turner. Elwood’s exalted idealism about human potential seems hopelessly naïve to Turner. Already on his second stint at Nickel, Turner’s only goal is to keep his head down and eventually get as far away from school as possible. The boys continually balance one another and grow from their relationship.
The Nickel Boys is ultimately an exploration of human dignity. We are all created with the dignity of being made in the image and likeness of God. What exactly does that mean when family, society and everyone in your world literally beats it out of you? This novel is set in the Jim-Crow era South. Yet, its themes eerily reverberate during a summer where the words “I can’t breathe” portend death at the hands of a white police officer. They reverberate in the fall when the extent of voter suppression may decide a presidential election.