In some novels, it’s the situation — not the plot, not the characters — that moves the story. That’s the case with “The Nickel Boys” by Colson Whitehead, which just won the Pulitzer Prize. Whitehead bases his story on a now-notorious boys’ “reform school” in Florida that operated from 1900 to 2011, where brutal floggings and sometimes deaths were common enough to fill a mostly unmarked graveyard on the school grounds, and sexual molestation was common.
There’s more than one way to approach a place like Whitehead’s fictitious “Nickel Academy,” also in Florida. One is to play up the atrocities and the agony, the brutality and the sexual molestation, to effectively sensationalize what occurs there. An opposite approach is the tack Whitehead takes: His matter-of-fact descriptions sometimes read like a case study.
That approach also serves to emphasize one of his points: A place like the Nickel Academy was not an exception or a deviation from the norm; it was merely an extreme manifestation of what might be called the punishment regime in American — and particularly white Southern — culture: “Their daddies taught them how to keep a slave in line … Take him away from his family, whip him until all he remembers is the whip, chain him up so all he knows is chains.” The school’s practices (and those of its real-life model) were only partially hidden from the public, and there were many people who knew what went on there and chose to remain silent.
It’s the early 1960s, and two Black teenagers are sentenced to the Nickel School. Turner is a smart, homeless street kid; he’s been at the school before and intends to survive it again. Elwood, on the other hand, is a well-behaved model student, planning to go to college in the fall, and an admirer of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.; he was arrested for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Turner knows that the best way to make it out of the school is to keep his head down, seize what opportunities he can and take advantage of the system. Elwood, as soon as he understands that he’s in a prison disguised as a school, sets out to change it. When Elwood gets in serious trouble while trying to break up a fight in the bathroom, Turner befriends him.
The school also has white students, who are strictly segregated, and one Mexican American, who keeps getting bounced from one group to the other. Still, the school effectively functions as a metaphor for how racism and other oppressive systems can operate with a veneer of consent by the oppressed: There’s no fence around the school, but trying to escape means being tracked down by dogs and subject to solitary confinement, beatings and worse.
There’s also a veneer of normality about it. The school pretends to offer a real curriculum and even diplomas to its “graduates.” A point system gives the illusion of a behavioral ladder that boys can climb to be released — except that the points are arbitrarily given and taken away by the staff. The annual Christmas pageant at the school draws visitors from miles around, and the boys get presents from townspeople. Boys who can keep their mouths shut, like Turner, get unpaid “training” jobs in the nearby town, delivering school supplies, such as food, tools and clothing, that are being illicitly sold to grocers and hardware stores, or doing maintenance work for members of the school’s Board of Trustees.
Turner gets Elwood on the crew for working in town — any chance to leave the school grounds is welcome — warning him to keep his mouth shut about the corruption he sees. Elwood, still trying to find a way to nonviolently change the system, keeps notes on everything. When he tries to get his information to the State of Florida, he finds out that the corruption extends a lot farther than he had realized.
Elwood’s insistence on the power of loving resistance contrasts sharply with the regimen at the school, but Turner’s friendship for Elwood creates the tension around that philosophy that makes the book more than just a horror story. Turner knows that Elwood can’t succeed. Elwood may believe in Martin Luther King’s philosophy, but he is an introverted dreamer, not an organizer. Turner is attracted by this mixture of idealism and naiveté, as well as Elwood’s evident intelligence and his unwillingness to accept things as they are. Turner helps get Elwood’s report out of the school, even though he suspects it will backfire. In the end, Elwood’s biggest impact is to change how Turner thinks. As Turner puts it, “It was not enough to survive, you have to live.”
The truth about the Nickel School, like the real-life Dozier School in Marianna, Florida, doesn’t come out until after the school is closed and archaeology students from the University of Florida discover many more skeletons than had ever been documented in the records. “The Nickel Boys” is a story that needed to be told and a reminder of the corruption that feeds on silence.
Read more in the May 20-26, 2020 issue.