The Nickel Boys
I had loved THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD for its history, its characters, and the metaphorical fantasy that wove it together. THE NICKEL BOYS had none of that. Make no mistake: this bluntly painful story, based on fact of a reform school in Florida, is horrific. It is angering and heartrending. This is an important book. I totally understand why the author was compelled to write it.
That said, being a writer, I look at the writing. With this novel, which comes on the footsteps of THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD, I struggled. The main character is something of a goody-two-shoes, making the author’s point about the dangers that even the best black boys face. Unfortunately, this good boy seemed bland. Much of the dialogue involving him felt juvenile, so that at times I wondered if this should have been a YA novel.
At other times, I felt that the author got carried away describing time and place in ways that had little to do with the theme. And while Whitehead used the words of Dr. Martin Luther King to tie plot elements together, they just didn’t hold.
I do recommend this book, but solely for the subject matter and it sheds light on racial discrimination and injustice. These subjects are not to be dismissed. But if you’re looking for novelistic imagination, Whitehead provides little.
There was one plot twist I did find redeeming. I mention it at the very end of this review because it occurs at the very end of the book. That felt too late for me. But it does give meaning to earlier elements. Moreover, it emphasizes the lifelong emotional damage done to black boys who had the misfortune of being sent to the Nickel Academy.
Powerful and important, but flawed.