Back to School: The Nickel Boys and Jim Crow Florida

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The Nickel Boys Book Review

by Colson Whitehead

Author: Colson Whitehead | Genre: Fiction | Published: August 2019

My September book review is the talented Colson Whitehead’s, The Nickel Boys. The Nickel Boys takes place in Tallahassee, Florida during Jim Crow. The story opens with the discovery of graves on the site of the Nickel Academy, the fictitious version of the real-life Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida. The old skeletons are unidentified, and so Whitehead begins the story of Elwood and Turner, two friends who meet at the Nickel Academy years before the bones appeared.

Elwood, abandoned by his mother and father, and raised by his grandmother, is mesmerized by the teachings of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King and holds on to optimism that equality will come to Florida. However, one unfortunate night lands him in the back of a patrol car and he is sentenced to a juvenile reformation school, known as the Nickel Academy. There, Elwood meets Turner, who is now on his second term at the school and has less optimism regarding their fate both inside and outside the school’s walls.

What I Liked…

It was evident by Whitehead’s writings that he did his research regarding the turmoil Black boys faced when they attended the segregated reform school. While I may not have lived during the egregious era, I’ve inherited countless stories from my father, who was raised in Florida during Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement. The descriptions of racism Elwood, Turner and the other characters faced was not only reminiscent of stories my father shared of his childhood in Florida, but it was a fresh reminder racism is embedded in American culture, and rears its ugly head in all institutions. Despite being a historical novel, I found it relatable and haunting. At only 200 pages, it is definitely worth a read.

Elwood’s grandmother might not be there when he got out. This had never occurred to him before. She was rarely sick, and when she was, she refused to stay off her feet. She was a survivor but the world took her in bites. Her husband had died young, her daughter had vanished out West, and now her only grandson had been sentenced to this place. She had swallowed the portion of misery the world had given her, and now there she was, alone on Brevard Street, her family tugged away one by one. she might not be there.

What I Didn’t Like…

If you’re not crazy about period pieces, then this book is not for you. Whitehead’s books seem to almost always take place in a historical setting (e.g., The Underground Railroad). Although I am a lover of fiction, I sometimes become easily bored with historical novels. Nonetheless, I preferred The Nickel Boys over The Underground Railroad. I’m not sure if this is because, in all honesty, Jim Crow wasn’t that long ago…

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