The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

A review of the literary novel The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead.

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Colson Whitehead was born in 1969, and raised in Manhattan. After graduating from Harvard College, Whitehead went on to work for the Village Voice where he wrote reviews of television, books, and music. His first novel, The Intuitionist, was published in 1999 and Whitehead has since gone on to lead a successful career as a writer.

His latest work, The Nickel Boys, was published in 2019 and follows the story of Elwood. In 1962 Elwood is a young boy who has been raised by his grandmother, and is inspired by the now famous speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. While hanging on to his dream that he will one day be let into Fun Town: something only the white kids were allowed to do in 1962. Despite the hardships that many people faced in America at this time, especially black people, Elwood gets along nicely. He is successful in school, and has a job at a tobacco store. Elwood is on route to go to college, to be successful, and that dream is very much in reach when his favourite teacher sets him up with an opportunity to take college classes for a semester after school. Unfortunately for Elwood, unbeknown to him, he one day hitchhikes to his college classes in a stolen car. After being pulled over by the police, Elwood’s journey to Nickel Academy begins.

When Elwood arrives at Nickel, reader’s eyes are opened to many hardships that a lot of boys were up against. But for Elwood, the racism he experiences at Nickel was something he was well aware of before he landed there. From the very beginning of this novel, Whitehead writes about injustices, racism, and micro-aggressions that Elwood is too young to realise, but soon does. It is clear that Elwood’s experiences were, a lot of the time, based in, or the consequence of, politics and views that he would only come to realise the magnitude of as time goes on.

This novel is a significant and beautiful work for revealing the narrative that existed for a lot of people in 60s and 70s America, and still does today. Whitehead does an incredible job of taking his readers on a journey, teaching them about the pain and anguish that racism causes, the innocence and opportunities it destroys, and the injustices for people who get caught up in the system.

Kirsty-Louise is a published author and poet with a BA hons in English Literature. Working as a Secondary English Teacher, dog walks on the coast, and reading books pass her time in Ramsgate & Margate.

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