The Nickel Boys

On the day Trump was spewing his latest racist bile (in this case directed toward Elijah Cummings and the city of Baltimore), I read these words, which open chapter six of Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys:

“The white boys bruised differently than the black boys and called it the Ice Cream Factory because you came out with bruises of every color. The black boys called it the White House because that was its official name and it fit and didn’t need to be embellished. The White House delivered the law and everybody obeyed.”

The book is fiction, but its setting, the Nickel Academy, is based on the Dozier School, a real state-run reform school for boys that operated in Florida for decades. In the novel as in reality, the White House was the little building on the grounds where the boys were horrifically abused. That one detail, Whitehead has said in interviews, he couldn’t bear to change.

The Nickel Boys follows Elwood, a thoughtful teenage boy in Jim Crow-era Florida. He listens closely to the words of Dr. King until he hitches a ride with the wrong guy and ends up at Nickel, where those words about loving your enemy quickly come to sound unfathomable. 

Some of the boys are there because of petty crimes, others are orphans with nowhere else to go. From the outside, Nickel looks lush and almost quaint. Inside, hundreds and hundreds of young lives are ruined before they might truly begin. The last third of this book is—well, friend of this email, I hope one day you and I can sit down together and talk about it. 

There are two graveyards at The Dozier School. One is filled with graves that were marked, the other is filled with graves that were not. This book adds grace to a country that is so often graceless. PLEASE READ 

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead, from Doubleday