Here’s a book I’ve been looking forward to. I highlighted it as one of my must-reads for 2019 in my Looking Back Looking Forward post in January. At that point August seemed a long time away but here it is and I have managed to get my hands on an advance copy.
Last time around Colson Whitehead ended up as #3 in my 2017 Books Of The Year list with the very impressive “The Underground Railroad” which won both a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award in the US and was a big seller over here. I said at the time “it ticks all the boxes for me, an involving entertaining, well-written, imaginative, educational, unpredictable read”. This is why expectations were so high for this.
“The Nickel Boys” focuses on a boys’ reform school, The Nickel Academy, which the author based on the real life Dozier School for Boys in Florida. Main character Elwood Curtis, an intelligent ambitious teen gets caught up in the backlash against the Civil Rights Movement and ends up being sent to the school on ludicrous charges. This school is tough, but particularly on the black inmates, many of whom have found themselves there without just cause. They face segregation, malnutrition, cruelty, indiscriminate beatings and a number disappear without being seen again. Whitehead focuses on the out-of-place Elwood and his more street-savvy friend Turner and their experiences as teens in this hideous place alongside a later narrative of revelations about the place which come to the surface (literally) many years later.
“The Underground Railroad” focused on slavery and veered off in an unpredictable direction which saw it top the Amazon Book charts in its “Metaphysical and Visionary” lists. This book plays things more straightforwardly. In a way, I was pleased by this, because the author has such an important story to tell but also I was a little disappointed that this does not soar in quite the same way as its predecessor with its imaginative elements. As I was reading it, however, I was expecting it to which did affect the way I approached this novel. I was a little wary in case Colson Whitehead took it off into another direction and left me behind.
It is well-written and tales of appalling prejudice still need telling. The ridiculousness of such viewpoints can be seen here in the character of Jaimie, a mixed-race Mexican boy who “ping pongs” between the two sections of the school. As soon as he becomes tanned by working outside in the sun he is sent to the “coloured” half until he is deemed too light-skinned to be there and sent back. Most of the examples of prejudice are, however, far more chilling than this.
In airing these issues from the past to Trump’s America Colson Whitehead has written another book which will enhance his growing reputation as one of the US’s most important novelists.
The Nickel Boys was published on August 1 2019 by Fleet. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.