After winning the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for his 2016 novel The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead wrote The Nickel Boys, released earlier this year. It wasn’t the next book he’d planned to write, but a news story about a boys’ reform school–recently closed after 111 years of operation–captured his attention. The rest, as they say, is history–or in this case, historical fiction that wants to show us the truth.
The Underground Railroad was Whitehead’s sixth novel (and 8th book), but it was my first exposure to the author’s powerful and imaginative storytelling gifts. (Runaway slave Cora is a teenager fleeing a brutal Georgia plantation on the “underground railroad”–reimagined by the author as an actual railroad with interconnecting tunnels heading north.) After finishing Cora’s story, I knew that whatever Whitehead wrote next was something I’d probably want to read.
Elwood Curtis doesn’t deserve to be sentenced to a reform school. Raised by his no-nonsense grandmother in a segregated neighborhood in Tallahassee, Florida, he’s a boy who does everything right. Studies hard. Never gets into trouble. His work ethic earns him the respect of the white men who employ him part-time. It’s the dawn of the Civil Rights movement and young Elwood spends his free time listening to the only record he owns–sermons by Martin Luther King, Jr. “We must walk the streets of life every day with this sense of dignity and this sense of somebody-ness.” He takes the man’s words to heart and begins to imagine a life where he’s “as good as anyone,” even though his family tree is riddled with the tragedies so common among black people in the Jim Crow South.
In his senior year in high school, a new teacher recognizes Elwood’s exemplary qualities and arranges for him to start free classes at a local black college. It’s only seven miles away–a long walk or a not-as-long bike ride, but in his hurry to get to ‘the promised land,’ he sticks out his thumb and is offered a ride by a black man in a stolen car. Elwood doesn’t know it’s stolen, of course, but a policeman stops them and they’re both charged with auto theft. Elwood is sentenced to The Nickel Academy. At first glance, he’s pleasantly surprised to find lush grounds dotted with red brick buildings, like he imagined the college he was supposed to attend. But the outside grounds are a façade. The officials are corrupt; some of the guards are sadistic. It’s a place of brutal beatings, rapes and unexplained deaths.
The Nickel Academy is based on The Alfred G. Dozier School for Boys, which got its start in the year 1900 in a small town in the Florida Panhandle. At the time, a reform school was an “enlightened” idea (as the author explained in an NPR interview.) The state of Florida didn’t want juvenile offenders to be criminalized by locking them up with adults. The boys’ crimes included things like truancy and graffiti; some of the boys weren’t offenders at all, simply orphans with no place else to go. Within three years, however, there were reports of abuse. Changes were supposed to be made, but the cycle continued for over a century: reports of abuse, followed by investigations that ultimately went nowhere. The white boys were kept segregated from the black boys, and both were physically abused.
In 2009, two reporters and a photographer for The Tampa Bay Times began a series of articles about the school, “For Their Own Good,” that exposed the long history of abuse. It was the beginning of the end of the Dozier School for Boys. The White House (pictured above) was where the boys were dragged to in the middle of the night for brutal beatings. There’s a White House in Whitehead’s novel, too. The white boys call it “The Ice Cream Factory” because the bruises they get there are multi-colored, but the black boys have no need to embellish the name. The White House describes it perfectly.
Whitehead’s novel begins, “Even in death the boys were trouble.” The grounds of The Nickel Academy, now closed, are being excavated by a group of archaeology students at the University of South Florida. Dozens of unmarked graves are discovered. This, in fact, is what happened with the real Dozier School for Boys, and it became a national news story that Whitehead heard about in 2014. Some of the boys who were there in the 1950s and 60s are still alive, along with their horrible memories of the place. Colson takes these facts and constructs a moving novel with unexpected turns. Elwood was a good boy who deserved a good life, but life can change in an instant. Colson Whitehead graduated from Harvard and was a recipient of “the Genius Award” (like Lin-Manuel Miranda of Hamilton fame), but he can relate to Elwood.
“I’ve been stopped by police for no reason. I’ve been handcuffed and interrogated. I think most young people of color have been stopped by police in this way.” This happened when he was a junior in high school. “If I’d been put in jail, who knows whether my life goes this way or that.” Colson Whitehead speaking to NPR’s Fresh Air, July 2019
I count great novelists among my heroes, along with great journalists.