Historical fiction is such an incredible genre that is perfect for readers who love learning about the past, without having to read a stuffy nonfiction book with chronological facts and timelines. Fiction books based on true events give an interesting spin on historical events and place the reader in the perspective of the protagonist. In this way, The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead did not disappoint. A historical fiction book that takes place in the 1960’s, in the heart of the Jim Crow South, Nickel Academy is a juvenile reformatory school in Florida that boasts it’s noble mission, but in reality is a nightmare facility.
Elwood is an intelligent young African American boy who finds himself in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and winds up at Nickel Academy. He enters the school with goals to keep his head down, follow the rules, bide his time, and get out as soon as he can. What Elwood quickly realizes is that there is no leaving Nickel Academy. It will follow you well after you leave. Staff beat and sexually abuse the students, the leadership is corrupt and uses the students as free labor for the neighboring town and sells off the food that they are supposed to serve them, and murders any boys that are not following the rules. Elwood meets Turner, a skeptic to his intellect. The boys form a strong bond and end up making a decision together that alters both of their lives forever.
I had never heard of Nickel Academy before reading this riveting book. The horrors those boys faced is unimaginable and Elwood’s perspective is heartbreaking. He uses Dr. Martin Luther King’s teachings to get himself through this horrific ordeal. Dr. King’s quotes are glaring in this narrative and blend the feeling of the tumultuous times during segregation. Elwood embodied his teachings and his sense of hope was inspiring and powerful. I loved the texture of history melded with fictional characters. I imagine that some of the men who survived Nickel Academy can relate to parts of Elwood and Turner’s stories.
Whitehead is a beautiful writer and packed so much emotion and history into a relatively small book. I love when I leave a book knowing more than when I went in. The Nickel Boys will expand your mind and expose you to a horrible and uncomfortable part of America’s history, but this is a story that needs to be shared. It got me thinking of how many tragic untold stories are out there, similar to this one.
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead is a solid 4.5 star read and I recommend it to fans of history and historical fiction. This book is difficult to read at times, but is such an important read.