The Nickel Boys: Pain seldom stays buried

Urvashi Bahuguna | Updated on November 08, 2019 Published on November 08, 2019

Colson Whitehead’s latest novel ‘The Nickel Boys’ stands out for the respect it accords to the trauma of generations who had no access to the language or tools for repair

“You can hide a lot in an acre, in the dirt.”

In Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys, digging is the most powerful metaphor. Fifty-five bodies are exhumed by archaeologists and state authorities in a concealed graveyard at the sprawling grounds of a reformatory school for boys, the Nickel Academy. The novel is based on exhaustive reporting on the real-life reformatory Dozier School for Boys in Florida, which ran with impunity for over a hundred years on state money until it was closed in 2011 after allegations of abuse and murder on the premises spanning several decades were confirmed by authorities.

Spurred by the testimony of the grown men who shared harrowing stories of their time in the school, Whitehead delves into the lives of the boys who end up at Nickel — a place that promised to turn seemingly wayward boys into respectable, law-abiding men. The young inhabitants include those who’ve been convicted of violent crimes, homeless wards of the state, and those sentenced for minuscule infractions such as sleeping in a garage to keep warm. Some of them were released only to return for a second or third term.

Among them is Elwood Curtis, a disciplined, conscientious boy brought up by his grandmother, who listens to the sole Martin Luther King record they own over and over. His on-the-straight-and-narrow life was slated for college and greatness until he found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. The layered story of Elwood’s life lies at the centre of the novel as it explores the ill-luck he manages to survive and lays bare the disadvantages that a young black boy must routinely contend with.

In a singular moment of empathy, one of Nickel’s staff says, “I know you’re just like me, but you had some bad luck.” It’s a moment that will reverberate throughout the narrative as Whitehead has us confront that young boys with poor luck, particularly black boys, are easy targets in their lack of social security. The systematic abuse of youth, particularly those from minorities or those considered lesser because of criminal convictions, in state institutions is a story that has played out across geography and time, whether in schools, hospitals, or juvenile detention centres. The amount of years, change of personnel, complaints, and investigations the school survives before it is finally shut is testament to the indemnity that is often granted to state agents in charge of vulnerable, invisible populations.

There exist hierarchies that dictate the abuse at Nickel — the superintendent and the staff have power over the inmates; the older, more seasoned inmates have power over the younger, defenceless ones; the staff treat the black inmates more viciously; and so on. Whitehead shows, again and again, that it is insufficient for these men to know that power over their fellow men exists in theory. The staff, in particular, believe they must exercise their power in demonstratable, violent ways to hold on to it. In a residential campus, under cover of darkness and seclusion, the staff become, as Elwood’s friend Turner surmises, who they truly are. The violence within the school also exists outside of it in the novel (and of course in the world), and Whitehead underscores that Nickel isn’t an aberration as much as an exacerbation.

As the troubled earth on Nickel’s grounds is turned over to look for hidden bodies, the memories of the men shaped by their years in the school resurface. Surviving inmates form support groups and come together to perform a “phantom archaeology” of their own, confirming their own memories by hearing similar accounts of violence from others. As the suspended campus is thoroughly searched by authorities, the Nickel boys revisit the rooms in their mind, and organise annual pilgrimages to the campus. Whether these visits mean a haunting or an exorcism for these men is unclear, but it is obvious that the past is relevant to who they became, and who they still are.

One of the novel’s gifts is the respect it bestows on the trauma of generations who did not have access to the language or tools for repair. For many people of the Nickel Boys generation, their past is a story known only to them. The novel explores the under-told story of the consequences of toxic, violent masculinity on young boys. In adulthood, the remaining Nickel boys are variously hardened and broken, resilient and struggling. The exhuming of the bodies with the shuttering of the school allows for the overdue closure of chapters, if not wounds.

Whitehead has always been a careful constructor of stories. They don’t get away from him, they aren’t overwhelming even if they are devastating.

The Nickel Boys; Colson Whitehead; Fiction; Penguin Random House; ₹599


The Nickel Boys is a well-written story of violence that concerns itself with the workings of violence rather than its macabre details. In some ways, it touches upon the same themes as his last novel, The Underground Railroad (2016), which dealt with a runaway slave in the American South.

As someone who enjoyed The Underground Railroad, it was interesting to see Whitehead explore a much more recent chapter of human violence in The Nickel Boys. The novel left me thinking deeply about state infrastructure, impunity, masculinity and violent behaviour.

Read The Nickel Boys. Whitehead is one of the finest, most versatile novelists of our time.

Urvashi Bahuguna is a writer based in New Delhi

Published on November 08, 2019
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