This is a completely gripping novel based on the horrific true-life events at the Arthur G Dozier School for Boys, in Florida. Elwood has just started to be involved in the civil rights protests sweeping the US in the 1960s, but can he use what he has learnt to survive in the notorious Nickel Academy?
Elwood is inspired to join the civil rights movement after listening to a Martin Luther King record bought by his grandmother. He tries to stick to everyone’s rules, but events overtake him and he ends up in a reform school. Torture and death are rumoured for some of the boys at Nickel Academy. How can you survive, or keep your soul alive, where there appears to be no rescue on the horizon? Can you do both of these things at the same time?
I read this short novel in a single sitting, knowing that I would not be able to think properly about anything else until I had finished it. The characters felt so real, I had to know what happened to them. Knowing that it was based on real events, I was concerned that the novel should do justice to the horrors uncovered (see here and here for Whitehead’s own views on his novel). It absolutely does.
The Nickel Boys speaks to current debates around historical abuse, institutional racism, and how we deal with the shadows of the long past. It engages with questions of whose voices are listened to and whose are not: why did it take so long for the authorities to listen to survivors?