Colson Whitehead isn’t the first writer to cast light on the notorious Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Florida (also known as the Florida School for Boys), a reform school that was a dumping ground for wayward boys, particularly ones who were black, poor, and vulnerable, but his talent for using historical events as a backdrop for his fiction is unparalleled.
In The Nickel Boys, Whitehead draws from history that is as well-documented as it is shocking to tell the story of Elwood Curtis, an earnest, upright, sensible black boy being raised by his grandmother in Tallahassee’s segregated Frenchtown. Jim Crow is alive and oppressive, severely limiting the prospects for a boy like Elwood, who listens to recordings of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches and believes that he can be somebody, that he is already somebody.
The staff at the Nickel Academy will do everything possible to teach him that the value of his black person in a white world is negligible. Elwood is remanded to Nickel for a crime of which he is innocent, and his faith in the new day he is certain is dawning for African-American people will be pushed to the breaking point by cruel, calculated neglect and by beatings with a three-foot leather strap called Black Beauty.
Whitehead’s prose is muscular, precise, and propulsive. Following his acclaimed novel The Underground Railroad with another equally as brilliant proves beyond doubt his standing as one of the most accomplished and inventive contemporary American novelists.