Waterstones Book of the Month July 2020: The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

So, it’s been a while. I’m so sorry I abandoned this blog for so long, I can’t actually believe the last time I posted was October! Honestly, life has been a bit overwhelming for me since then as I’ve not only started a History degree with The Open University, but I also managed to get a part time job, and with both of these happening I just haven’t had the time to blog or read, but I’m getting a bit better at managing my time and if anyone is still reading this hi! I’m excited to be back!

In 2020 I decided to read all of Waterstone’s ‘Fiction Book of the Month’ picks, this book was chosen for the month of July.

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead is a historical fiction novel and was Waterstone’s Book of The Month for July 2020. It currently has an average rating of 4.26 on Goodreads, and I have rated it 5 stars.

Elwood Curtis is unfairly sentenced to a juvenile reformatory centre after he’s caught up in someone else’s crime. At Nickel Academy he finds himself trapped in a place of horrors, and the only light in the dark is his friendship with Turner, a follow “delinquent”. Despite their different worldviews, and Turner’s insistence that Elwood is hopelessly naive their friendship continues to deepen over time. But as their time at the Academy grow worse and worse, and tensions rise, their different stances on the world clash and lead to a decision that’s ramifications continue to be felt decades later.

“If everyone looked the other way, then everybody was in on it. If he looked the other way, he was as implicated as the rest. That’s how he saw it, how he’d always seen things.”

I am very sorry I am only now just reviewing the Book of The Month for July 2020, and I will be continuing this series for the rest of the books chosen for 2020, and whilst this review is very late it doesn’t change the fact I was floored by this book upon reading it. This was far more of an intense and emotional read than I thought it would be as it’s fairly short, however that doesn’t detract from it’s or Whitehead’s brilliance and it is a book I will likely be recommending time and time again.

The two main characters of this book are Elwood and Turner, both young boys whose ‘crimes’ have ended up with them being sent to Nickel Academy to atone and be ‘reformed’ under the law. It was easy to become enamoured with Elwood pretty much immediately, he’s young and ambitious and perhaps his biggest flaw may be his naivety or trusting nature – but those are qualities hard to hate and it means as a reader you come to care for the character almost immediately. In juxtaposition to this is Turner, who whilst isn’t uncaring but is perhaps more worldly and wise, and is quick to call Elwood ‘naive’. These contrasting personalities lead to a wonderful friendship that as a reader I found to be one of the most compelling parts of the book.

Also, it must be noted not only are Elwood and Turner brilliant to read as characters, but so is every other character you encounter. Whitehead has managed to make each one compelling and an integral part of the story, this is even more obvious when we encounter the ‘villains’ -though it could be argued the true villains of this story are the state and institutionalised racism rather than a few characters. The villains we encounter in character form that represent these ideas are truly terrifying, and Whitehead was able to maintain these antagonists without them being diminished or transformed into cartoonish villains, they are truly good characters, not in a moral sense but in a constructive one.

Another testament to Whitehead’s writing is his ability to clearly and concisely detail the lives and experiences of the boys at the Nickel Academy within just over 200 pages. In such a short space Whitehead is able to create truly foreboding environments such as The White House, and is able to convey the terror and pain of the Academy with what seems like little trouble for him. Whilst no part of this book is truly graphic with it’s descriptions, the pain and terror in it’s pages is apparent and I would warn readers to tread carefully if violence or torture is a trigger to them.

Perhaps what I found most fascinating and horrifying about this – and likely because I’m a history student – is that the Nickel Academy and all the atrocities detailed within it, are based off of real accounts from Arthur G Dozier School for Boys. The atrocities that were committed at that institution only came to light recently, and it were these revelations that apparently inspired Whitehead to write this book.

Whilst I loved this compelling read I don’t recommend it without some caution. It’s a powerful and important book, but it’s subject matter is hard and Whitehead doesn’t shy away from content that may be difficult or even triggering for people to read. So I would recommend to tread carefully with this book, however if you feel at all unable to read it, I suggest reading up on the history it is inspired by, as this isn’t something that can ever be forgotten.

History of Arthur G Dozier School for Boys:

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