The writer is saddled with the responsibility to tell truth, reflect society, teach society and sometimes proffer solutions to the myriad of problems that is in the society. Many writers have taken this responsibility seriously and one of such is Colson Whitehead. He has through his novel opened up (what many would have preferred buried and forgotten) the continuous discourse on man’s inhumanity to man and the injustices that have been allowed to occur in the society without question.
The Nickel Boys chronicles the story of young boys who were sent to reform homes but unknown to them, they were given a bed in hell. The pain inflicted on these young men through beatings, rape and brutal punishments leave these young boys scarred for life. This informs the title of this review which is from the book, “The Infinite Brotherhood of Broken Boys.” Some make it out, some don’t. But they are tied by their experiences and they are made to confront this everyday just like Turner.
With focus on characters like Elwood and Turner, Colson talks sternly about the racial divide that is still a problem in society today. Elwood is sent to Nickel because he stole a car and many others were sent there for far simpler crimes. What stands out in Elwood’s character is his desire to always do right. He is influenced by the letters and speeches of Martin Luther King and he becomes more driven by a desire to change Nickel and report the cruelty that goes on in there.
Elwood and Turner become friends and they watch how people of colour are treated in Nickel. One incidence that stands out is Giff, a boxing champion for the black boys and has remained undefeated who is warned by the housemaster not to win the next match but due to his lack of comprehension of what is expected, he wins the match. Sadly, that was his end.
So many aspects of this story pierces your heart especially the bond between Harriet and her grandson Elwood. A woman who desired to give the best to her son but has to visit him in a juvenile home and is oblivious to his troubles. The fact that young men are sent to the home with the belief that they will be well trained, transformed and ready for social integration and they returned worse than they went is one of the greatest ironies ever.
Colson Whitehead bases this fiction on the real events in Florida School of Boys and with this, he makes us remember what many choose to forget or are indifferent about or to make us aware that cruelty exists, breathes and lives through men like us. What is sad is that these boys are unable to speak up about what they face even when their relatives come to visit. The school makes the boys paint the school and decorate the school for Christmas, giving colour to brutality shaped in darkness. Who would believe that such ‘beautifully decorated’ school would be an extension of hell on earth?
The novel will serve as a reminder to us all and more so, it will be a historical fiction that will point us to vestiges of the past that still haunt many today. The novel is a good one except that it drags on a bit but Colson expertly ties it all together, though the end felt a little rushed. The language is simple but lacks in its ability to sustain the reader for long (excessive descriptions of the inner feelings of the character was not top notch). But the message is clear. Truth must be told and Colson said it. Well done Colson! If you are a patient reader looking for some realistic fiction, please read the book.