In his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead turned the phenomenon of oppressed and traumatized African American slaves fleeing the South before the Civil War into compelling alternative history. The fantasy elements include a literal physical railroad system hidden beneath the ground in tunnels. However, this speculative departure from reality does not cause readers to become removed from the horrors of slavery that Whitehead depicts. The actions of his characters are based upon the accounts of real escaped slaves, and the descriptions of torture, flight, pursuit, and redemption are immediate and visceral.
In The Nickel Boys, except for creating fictional characters, Whitehead eschews fantastical elements and sticks close to the realities that inspired his novel. It is based on the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, also known as the Florida School for Boys, which was a reform school that existed from early 1900 until 2011, when the state of Florida closed it down after an investigation that uncovered an unbelievable number of unmarked graves of former residents on its grounds.
Whitehead’s novel alternates between modern times and the 1960s. A literate, idealistic young African American high school student named Elwood Curtis is arrested when he inadvertently hitchhikes a ride with a man who has stolen a car. He is sent to Nickel Academy, a reform school with a segregated campus where whites and blacks alike are tortured and even murdered to keep them in line. It is run by a sadistic man named Spencer who enjoys nothing better than to haul misbehaving students off to a special site known as the White Room and beat them bloody with a special leather strap. After these sessions, some students wind up dead, while others are relegated to the facility’s hospital, where the resident doctor’s cure for everything is a couple of aspirin. The weaker students are raped by predatory staff members, and the administration routinely confiscates the best food and supplies designated for the school by the state to sell off to local merchants.
The present-day parts of the novel take place as the school’s abuses are finally being uncovered and exposed by investigators. We see how the horrific trauma that one of the former residents underwent has followed him in haunting memories and nightmares. He is faced with the decision of whether to keep silent and remain hidden or tell his stories for his own sake and the sake of others who never made it out alive. There is a heartbreakingly poignant twist at the end that I will not reveal; I will only say that it is set up superbly and slams home the author’s message with overwhelming emotional intensity.
When I first heard of this book I did not read it because I thought I might not be able to handle the descriptions of atrocities. There are atrocities throughout, yes, and Whitehead does not shy away from shining a spotlight on them, but the story is so well told and the characters inspire so much empathy that as a reader I was able to get past these gruesome details. That is the power of art: it is able to take a terrible chapter of human history such as this and somehow convert it into a thing of beauty. Whitehead accomplishes that in this novel.