Book Review: The Nickel Boys

The Nickel Boys | Colson Whitehead (Bildungsroman reading challenge prompt) ★★★★☆

Audio narration | JD Jackson ★★★★★ 

“Colson Whitehead brilliantly dramatizes another strand of American history through the story of two boys sentenced to a hellish reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida.”- Goodreads

*note* I listened to the Penguin Random House audio and the narrator was incredible. Jackson’s cadence is familiar; his tone, intimate. Imagine your favorite storyteller; an uncle, teacher or children’s librarian and how they can engage you to listen all day–that is the ease and effortless quality he possesses. Audio version highly recommended.*

Beautiful character portraits and carefully assembled novel structure help alleviate the strain when confronting the reality of this story gets increasingly rough. Distantly, readers observe Elwood’s childhood from the outside. They watch him attain a budding consciousness, become exposed to MLK’s preaching, and heed his grandma’s stoic example. But when the powers-that-be turn the screws on him, a more intimate story develops. The scope narrows when readers step inside Elwood’s shoes-not a comfortable place to be, but an honest one, as he is oriented to the injustices of The Nickel Academy for Boys.

It didn’t make no sense until it made the only sense. That was Elwood.

p. 27

By exposing Elwood’s thoughts, cautious dreams and heavy frustrations, a sharp internal/external tension is carved out. In unworldly, upstanding Elwood, Whitehead creates a character so innocent there can be no question of fault leading to his imprisonment. A golden example of boyhood, beset by bad luck and a bigoted system. His rite of passage is the ultimate wrong, representing the lost youth of countless black boys living in segregated America. An innocence balanced out by calculating and world-wise Turner. Their friendship flows naturally and necessarily as boys denied the simple pleasure of being ordinary young men.

“You’re wrong Turner. It’s not an obstacle course, he said. You can’t go around it–you have to go through it. Walk with your head up no matter what they throw at you.”

p. 174

Given the premise inspired by a true story, the events which occurred at Nickel were infuriating, but not unexpected. What I found engrossing was the exploration (via Elwood’s prowling thoughts) of the reasons behind the degradation the characters experienced. His futile search for causation, desire to understand the perpetrators, ideas about the capacity for human beings to improve, and determination that he must make a difference are fascinating psychological elements. Running, racing and getting ahead, or falling behind are prevalent, yet subtle themes. Whitehead employs a few narrative contrivances but those are nuanced with hints and implications. Nothing is overwrought.

He had to trust a stranger to do the right thing. It was impossible, like loving the one who wanted to destroy you, but that was the message of the movement: to trust in the ultimate decency that lived in every human heart.

p. 175
My photo, but not my copy. I regret not having it in my collection.

As close and intimate as Whiteheads’s breakout novel, The Underground Railroad, was vast and expansive. Both tell of a character’s harrowing experience caught in a net of racist exploitation. But TNB is a more relatable type of survival story. Literal and figurative; a survival of spirit, of a psyche dealing with guilt and pain, a survival of memory. Loaded with artful touches revealing great emotional truths about the darkness of American History-I must go on record for you to read The Nickel Boys.

Any new book you’d urge me to read? I’d like to hear about it.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: The Nickel Boys

  1. I knew a guy at the beginning of university who firmly believed that the future of literature was in audio books. He argued that with an aging population of Boomers, all of whom have or will go on to develop shit eyesight, it was a no-brainer. I don’t know if the audio book thing has quite come to the fruition he predicted, but I still think it’s a wonderful format, although as you point out, it all comes down to the narrator – a great narrator makes or breaks an audio book. I think James McAvoy and Trevor Noah should narrate all the literature. I’d listen to either one of them read anything – even a terms and conditions form!


  2. What a wonderful review. I’m so happy that I have this audiobook on reserve and should get it early October.
    If you are looking for a fun, much lighter listen I highly recommend Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid. It has a full cast and all the narrators are fabulous.


    1. Of course you do Mari, you possess excellent reading tastes😉
      And thank you!
      D J + the 6 is on tap to read-I bet I can really get absorbed in the format. It may have to be in January but I will get into it, thank you for the rec.
      Hope you’re well.


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