“The dirt looked wrong.” So begins The Nickel Boys, the latest novel by Pulitzer- and National Book Award–winning novelist Colson Whitehead. An archaeology student stumbles upon an unmarked graveyard at a recently shuttered Florida reform school for boys, and an excavation of secrets ensues—the “fractures and cratered skulls, the rib cages riddled with buckshot.”
“You can hide a lot in an acre, in the dirt,” Whitehead writes, but people have little enthusiasm for sifting through it. Before the skeletons were discovered, the site of Nickel Academy had been marked for redevelopment as an office park: “Now they had to start a new inquiry, establish the identities of the deceased and the manner of death, and there was no telling when the whole damned place could be razed, cleared, and neatly erased from history, which everyone agreed was long overdue.”
To what extent anything can be razed, cleared, and neatly erased from history is the central concern of the novel. In more ways than one, The Nickel Boys is an archaeological enterprise. It literally excavates a story of institutional and human cruelty—one based on real-life headlines in 2014 concerning Florida’s Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, a reform school with a hundred-year track record of allegations of corruption, physical and sexual abuse, even murder. Whitehead’s thinly fictionalized version of this history draws heavily on the testimony of a survivors’ group called the White House Boys, named for the shed where boys were taken in the night for brutal whippings.
Into Nickel Academy comes Elwood Curtis, an idealistic boy growing up in Tallahassee in the early 1960s. Elwood’s upward strivings for an education and civil rights are interrupted when he is arrested on false charges of carjacking and sent to Nickel Academy. A devotee of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Elwood’s principled notions of justice and right action are swiftly and severely tested by the cruelty he encounters. Beneath its rhetoric of character formation and its fine-looking buildings, the institution is rotten to its core. The boys’ labor and their few possessions are pawned off to local businesses under the table; supervisors sexually prey on their wards; boys are carted off in the middle of the night to the White House, where an industrial fan drowns out their screams as they’re whipped. In rare cases, a boy is taken “out back,” code for that secret graveyard dug up in 2014.
How ought a soul to survive in such a place? Elwood disputes this question with his new friend, Turner, a boy who prides himself on his cynical understanding of how the world really works and who seeks to disabuse Elwood of his MLK idealism. Their friendship forms the core of The Nickel Boys, and neatly (perhaps too neatly) encapsulates opposite answers. Turner’s answer—keep your head down and your guard up—doesn’t satisfy Elwood, who views such submission as degrading to one’s humanity and dignity. Only love will prevail, Elwood believes, but his attempts to stand against wrongdoing repeatedly prove his undoing. The ideals he has memorized from his Martin Luther King at Zion Hill record seem so at odds with the way of the world as to be almost useless.