So I finally read Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead, and.... wow.
I went into reading this book with no idea what to expect. I'm trying this new thing where i don't read reviews or descriptions before I read books this year, but I will say I kind of wish I read this book during the time of the year when I wasn't as susceptible to seasonal depression, because this book definitely almost took me there.
This review has a few spoilers in it; however, I decided to leave the most meaningful spoiler out of this review.
Nickel Boys tells the story of a young Elwood, a Black, studious, and well-meaning boy who closely follows the word of Dr. Martin Luther King Junior during the Jim Crow era. Elwood was abandoned by both of his parents at a young age, and was raised by his very loving and supportive grandmother Harriet in Tallahassee, Florida. He worked for the small amount of money he earned in the local corner store and dreamed of fighting for his rights as a citizen along side Dr. King.
Due to his studiousness, Elwood was granted the opportunity to begin attending college classes early. On the way to his first day of college, Elwood decided he would hitchhike there so he can get there early. He was picked up by a man in a very fancy car that had turned out to be stolen. Elwood, none the wiser, was shocked to find this out when the driver was pulled over by the police. Both Elwood and the stranger were taken into custody. From there Elwood was sent to the Nickel boys reform school to pay his debt to society.
Upon orientation, Elwood, being unspeakably naive, assumed that through good behavior, honest intentions, and the assistance of the lawyer his boss at the corner store hired for him, he'd serve his time and be let out earlier than expected. We come to find out that's not how things work at Nickel. Not only was Nickel extremely segregated, as an even darker reflection of the outside world, we begin to realize the idea of good behavior and early release is a dream only afforded to those who have to pay in unspeakable ways, or those who have somehow been privileged by race.
It wasn't until Elwood's first severe beating after trying to break up a fight, that we find Elwood actually coming to terms with the reality of his fate, especially after finding out that the lawyer that had been hired to help Elwood had left town with the money paid to him. While in Nickel, Elwood had been assigned the task of community service with a boy named Jack Turner who he later befriended. On their time out in the community, they were offered chances to take a look at the free world and fantasize about what they would do if and when they became free. During this time, Turner had always fantasized about his escape plan if it ever came down to it.
Nickel had to pass periodic inspections regulated by the government to "ensure the boys weren't being mistreated". On the day of inspection, Elwood thought it wise to write the county a letter and let them know about the abuses and mistreatment. When it came time to hand in the letter, Elwood got cold feet, and his friend Jack handed the letter to the officer instead. Of course, word got back to Nickel and once it was discovered, Elwood was sent to solitary and prepared for the worst beating of (and possibly the end of) his life.
Jack Turner overheard the guards saying they'd take him out back (which, at Nickel, meant kill him and say he disappeared), so Jack found regular clothes for the two of them to change into. got Elwood out of solitary, and decided to make a run for it.
Needless to say, unfortunately only one of them made it... but I won't tell you who. You have to read it. ;)
It took a few days for me to really get into this book. I kept pausing because of the heaviness of it. There were a lot of triggers for me personally that I couldn't quite handle. Once I got over the initial shock and made the conscious decision to move forward with it, I began to allow myself to get sent back to Jim Crow and become a guardian angel to Elwood and to all of his peers. Whitehead did an amazing job with haunting you at the beginning with foreshadowing that was slightly difficult to understand until you got midway through. He opened the story letting you know that there were ghosts, and not just regular ghosts, sinister ghosts, childlike figures, and tragedy.
My favorite part about the writing is that Colson didn't leave one single stone unturned. This is honestly my favorite type of writing. I can only image what the story boards looked like for this type of writing. I'm thinking Whitehead was in a very dimly lit basement with a wall of characters, new clippings, and red thread connecting parts of the story. The story was that well though out. Colson Whitehead is a literary mastermind!
I loved the way Whitehead weaved through time. He made it make sense without really giving too much away-- so much so, that by the end, you never saw it coming.
I am now a fan, and I will definitely be going back to read more of his books. Now I understand why he's become such a household name.
Have you read Nickle Boys by Colson Whitehead yet? What did you think? The people want to know.
Until next time,