Underrated underworld undertones.
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead is a book that pits romanticism against idealism not in a classroom, or the halls of a government – but in the bleakest background possible – a segregated reform school. It explores the possibility of empathy in the face of cruelty, of movements in the face of racist stagnancy.
The book revolves around a single friendship between two boys who embody these warring ideals – two boys with similar objectives but wildly differing paths.
The books begins by tracking Elwood, a young African American on the fast track to college with all the “desirable” traits – conscientiousness, intelligence, righteousness and industry – the traits the American dream sells us on. The fact that such a boy ends up in a reform school masquerading as front for the near torturous, murderous, and often paedophilic urges of it’s administrators is a stunning indictment of American police. They saw an old white man and a young black man in a car – and immediately arrested Elwood for car theft.
The problem is this – Elwood wants to believe in humanity and people. He wants to hold on Martin Luther King’s assertions. He wants to break up fights on campus and report errors to authority. He still wants to pay his dues, “graduate” from Nickel Academy quickly and continue with his life – an objective which even he realises quickly to be naivety.
The book not only tracks his journey through Nickel, but also the trauma after. The fundamental realisation that just like war, abuse at levels so pervasive has permanent impacts. The idea that there are naturally inviolate parts of us, thresholds not meant to be crossed, sanctum sanctorums that we are meant to protect – parts that if fiddle with, can have unfathomable impacts.
But the beauty in this book is in it’s specific symbolism – how on their escape from Nickel, idealism (Elwood) is shot, while skepticism (Turner) runs faster and further without looking back. How Turner realises that maybe he could have protected Elwood from being the Icarus that flew to close the son. How Elwood interacts with his grandmother Harriett – the war-weary soldier who lost her husband and children, and now stands to lose Elwood.
The realisation that in a world as shattering as 1960s Florida, life takes and it takes and it takes, and they keep giving anyways. The realization that life-shattering circumstances steal from our heart and whittle us down to our essence – that the parts we decide to give up decide the sculpture we are carved into.