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Book Review: The Nickel Boys (2019), by Colson Whitehead

Found this (audio) book because I had to take a long car trip and I needed something that was a.) contemporary, and b.) certified good. The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead is definitely both, having won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2020. 

The Nickel Boys is a novel set in an abusive boys reform school in Florida in the mid-1960s. Although it is fiction, the book was inspired by the real-life investigation into the Dozier School, and several of the characters and incidents in the story parallel the lives and stories of actual students at the Dozier School, a group of whom are still alive and who still keep in touch. 

Without getting into the at times graphic details of the abuse the boys suffered at the school (and, ergo, in the real life Dozier School) I will just say that at times this book can be pretty upsetting to listen to, and probably not a great "beach read" or something you read when you want to just escape into a good read and drift away. No, The Nickel Boys brings you right back to the pre-Civil Rights American South. Not a good place to be if you were black. 

Other than the quality of the story-telling, two main things stuck out to me about this book...

Number one was just how timely this book is, coming at a time when racial injustice has been thrust back up into the forefront of the national "conversation" after the killing of George Floyd in May, not weeks after this book received the Pulitzer Prize. It just goes to show that although we no longer live in the era of Jim Crow and, thankfully (hopefully) we have eradicated horror stories like the Dozier School, we still live in a country riddled wish racism and inequity. There is no need to ask a question like, "why did this story need to be told?" We KNOW why it needs to be told. So that we don't forget the violence and injustice black people were subjected to in this country even just 50 years ago, and up to the present day.

Number two is, quite simply, the power of fiction. Colson Whitehead took a subject matter that could have been treated as a journalistic project and, instead, breathed life into it as a piece of fiction. To me, this story is much more compelling as a piece of fiction with a main character, an arch, a "narrative" if you will, than simply a catalog of atrocities. In fact, while I was listening to the book, all the while I kept thinking to myself, "How did he get all this detail, this is incredible," before I realized it was a piece of fiction. That's a testament to how well the book is written. To me it's also a testament to the sheer power of "story" to move people and ultimately why fiction -- in whatever form it takes -- has existed since the dawn of human history and will never die.

This is an outstanding book. Just know what you are getting into when you start it. There are moments of levity here and there, but on the whole, this book is a tragedy. Tragic because of what happened to the boys that lived at the school and tragic because in this country, as recently as the 1960s, we allowed such unconscionable miscarriage of justice and physical abuse to take place against anyone, of any race. But there is also a bright spot or two to the story, which you'll see if and when you read it. Which I highly recommend.