I owned The Nickel Boys for months before I dared read it, because I was afraid that it would be too heavy to engage with in the middle of an already challenging semester. I thought it would rip me apart and break my heart with all its potential horror. After reading it finally over break, I don’t know how else to say this, but it turns out that The Nickel Boys was not nearly as harrowing as I expected. Although I consider it a good read, I don’t feel anything particularly strongly about it.
For those unfamiliar, the book is about a boarding school in Florida that operates more like a detainment center for delinquent boys than an institute of education. Neither teachers nor administrators give a whit about the wellbeing of the boys. I don’t know whether the book really was written in a way that wasn’t as painful as I expected, or if my relative stoicism came from myself, being familiar with Ghanaian boys’ boarding house horror stories. The Nickel Academy certainly felt awful, but not even close to unimaginably so. Only once while reading do I recall being stunned enough to pause and reevaluate my decision to keep reading.
The Nickel Boys was my second ever Colson Whitehead read. The first was The Underground Railroad, which I read in 2018. The Underground Railroad was a bit of a publishing hit. Before all the publicity of its release, I didn’t even know who Colson Whitehead was. I suspect that book’s success was both a good thing and a bad thing for The Nickel Boys, published in its shadow. The fortunate part is that after the preceding book’s popularity, people were eager to get their hands on The Nickel Boys. The unfortunate consequence, though, is that too many people seem to want to interpret The Nickel Boys as another Underground Railroad—essentially another American slavery novel—whereas I think it just isn’t.
My reading experiences between The Nickel Boys and The Underground Railroad were vastly different. I experienced the former to be better than the latter, both in relevance and enjoyability. While I remember thinking The Underground Railroad was full of Black academic jargon that I only recognized because I myself am an Africana Studies major, The Nickel Boys used simple language which was beautifully lyrical while being easy to work through. The book itself was brief, but I also read it very fast in the way I can only do when I am able to swim through the writing style with barely any resistance. Additionally, there are many, many books about American slavery, both in fiction and nonfiction. But a topic such as this—the Nickel Academy being based off the very real Dozier School for Boys—is not one that you come across often. That alone made the subject matter more interesting for me.
I came across quite a number of The Nickel Boys reviews that treated it as a slavery novel, and for the life of me, after reading it, I couldn’t see it as one, no matter what the critics said. The main characters are certainly Black, and a significant portion of the time setting is the Civil Rights Era. The experiences of Elwood and Turner are definitely horrifying and the circumstances by which they landed in the Nickel Academy were specifically racial. But if the novel must be treated as a critique, I see it as more of a critique on the US’s way of dealing (or not dealing) with delinquency—or what a dysfunctional system thinks delinquency is—than of slavery or racism. The Nickel Academy, though segregated, is a house of horrors for unfortunate teenage boys, Black, white, and in Jaimie’s case, Mexican. Although the main character, Elwood, is Black, and his story and his friend Turner’s are consequently stories of Black horror, the Nickel Academy itself does not value any demographic of its boys. It’s a downright awful institution for all enrolled in it. If the novel must have a moral, I’d say it was this: something is very, very wrong with human beings. Too many characters seem to derive pleasure from gratuitous cruelty and operate with a stunning disregard for the value of life.
I have some idea of why some critics so badly want to turn this into a slavery novel, but I do not think The Nickel Boys becomes any less relevant than The Underground Railroad even if it is not explicitly about race. Sometimes, books suffer unreasonably from the shadows of their predecessors or the reputations of their writers.
Here’s one of my favorite quotes from the book, which showcases Colson Whitehead’s classical wit (and I’ve experienced him in person so I can verify that he’s hilarious):
“His constant dorm reassignments notwithstanding, Jaimie kept a quiet profile and conducted himself in accordance with the Nickel handbook’s rules of conduct—a miracle, since no one had ever seen the handbook despite its constant invocations by the staff. Like justice, it existed in theory.”
-Akotz the Spider Kid
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