Book Review: Colson Whitehead, The Nickel Boys

Elwood is a boy who’s raised by his grandmother and likes to listen on repeat to Dr King’s speeches. He works rather hard at school because he deeply believes that he can contribute to changing things for Black people in the US. He lives in Florida in the 1960s, and the Jim Crow laws are in full swing which fuels Elwood’s will to be part of the change. He’s championed by one of his teacher who’s an activist, too, and thanks to him, the boy manages to secure a place in the local college to learn English. However, after an unfortunate turn of events Elwood is sent to the Nickel Academy – a sort of education centre for young offenders. The school is segregated and the children are beaten by the staff to points of extreme violence. Everyone dreams of escaping but no one has ever managed to do so. Sometimes, when a boy is especially ‘tough’, he’s taken to a shed in the school yard called the White House, never to be seen again. Faced with this cruel system where education doesn’t matter because black boys don’t matter, Elwood remember King’s speech and fight to see the end of this oppression.

This novel is easy to read in the sense that Whitehead writes with an ease that is engrossing and makes you dive deep into Elwood’s world. But everything said is also so heavy and difficult because as you read about Elwood’s struggles, you can’t help but wonder if this is really set in the 1960s or right now. The Nickel Academy counts both white and black inmates, but you never really hear about the white boys because they’re held far apart from their black counterparts. It’s in the black school that there isn’t any education, it’s also there that the White House is and that boys disappear. I really don’t want to spoil this novel, but if you know a thing or two about American history then I’m pretty sure you can guess what’s really going on in that school. Whitehead was inspired by a true story to write this novel, so it’s all the more poignant.

He hadn’t marched on the Florida Theatre in defense of his rights or those of the black race of which he was a part; he had marched for everyone’s rights, even those who shouted him down. My struggle is your struggle, your burden is my burden.

I wrote this review before the results of the American election and I felt truly scared – afraid that still so many black children wouldbe deprived of education and a life because they’re growing up in a system that refuses to give them space to exist. Now we all know the outcome of the election, and we can breathe. But we still need to be aware of everything that’s going on around us and never forget that Black Lives Matter. This is a book that deals with it because so many black boys’ lives were neglected and still are to this day.

In the end, there isn’t so much to say about this book other than: READ IT. It’s one of the best things I’ve read this year and the ending left me speechless. I’ve read it a little while ago and it’s still vivid in my mind… I can’t wait to read the rest of Colson Whitehead’s works, I fell in love with his writing!

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