When I saw that Colson Whitehead, author of The Underground Railroad, a fantastic novel that I read a few years ago (see my blog), had a new book out, I bought it in a bookshop in Oxford in the summer. I finally got round to reading The Nickel Boys in December and it was fascinating. It is set in the Nickel reform school in Florida in the 1960s and is based on a real school and the reporting and memoirs that brought to light the atrosities that happened there.
Elwood is a hard-working black boy destined for great things, doing well in school, living with his equally hard-working grandmother and working in a tobacco shop after school to save money. Mr Marconi, the owner of the tobacco shop, is fond of Elwood and buys him a foundation pen as a present when he is clearly headed for College.
As Elwood grows up he learns more and more about the civil rights struggle and believes strongly that the world is changing and that fairness will prevail. But reality bites when he hitches a lift to go and look round a College campus, in what turns out to be a stolen car. Despite using all the family’s savings on his legal team, he ends up being sent to Nickel.
Nickel is a brutal place and the boys are separated into the black and white sections on arrival. The food is awful, the education they are supposed to receive is non-existent, there is manual labour and boys keep disappearing into the night, sometimes never to return. Elwood is left alone to see if he can survive.
This is a chilling book, and there are sections I found equally hard to read as I had passages from Whitehead’s book The Underground Railroad. It’s really about survival of the human spirit and whether it is possible to overcome racism and childhood trauma. I was gripped right to the end, waiting to find out what happens to Elwood.