As the Civil Rights movement begins to reach the black enclave of Frenchtown in segregated Tallahassee, Elwood Curtis takes the words of Dr. Martin Luther King to heart: He is “as good as anyone.” Abandoned by his parents, but kept on the straight and narrow by his grandmother, Elwood is about to enroll in the local black college. But for a black boy in the Jim Crow South of the early 1960s, one innocent mistake is enough to destroy the future. Elwood is sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy, whose mission statement says it provides “physical, intellectual and moral training” so the delinquent boys in their charge can become “honorable and honest men.”
In reality, the Nickel Academy is a grotesque chamber of horrors where the sadistic staff beats and sexually abuses the students, corrupt officials and locals steal food and supplies, and any boy who resists is likely to disappear “out back.” Stunned to find himself in such a vicious environment, Elwood tries to hold onto Dr. King’s ringing assertion “Throw us in jail and we will still love you.” His friend Turner thinks Elwood is worse than naive, that the world is crooked, and that the only way to survive is to scheme and avoid trouble.
The tension between Elwood’s ideals and Turner’s skepticism leads to a decision whose repercussions will echo down the decades. Formed in the crucible of the evils Jim Crow wrought, the boys’ fates will be determined by what they endured at the Nickel Academy.
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead definitely evokes emotion from any reader. This novel is based on an actual reform school located in Florida. Teenage boys, Black and White, both end up here for a number of small “crimes”, which may have been committed by them or their parents. There isn’t even a real way out of the institution unless you take your chances running away or you are killed by the administrators.
Elwood Curtis, a young man who is being raised by his grandmother, is the narrator. Elwood has a pretty “privileged” lifestyle compared to what he endures in The Nickel Academy. He loves listening to the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and works in the hotel with his grandmother. He is on his way to his first college class, even though he is still in high school, when he gets in trouble with the law. A young man whose mind has just been opened to the Civil Rights movement and could have made something of himself despite segregation, is taken away and placed into the academy of horrors.
Elwood is forced to face all of the ugliness of the world in The Nickel Academy. The punishment that the boys receive is evil and unjustified. They have to deal with rape, brutal beatings, and racism. There are two places where the boys are “tortured”. One is referred to as “the white house” and the other is just two trees with metal rings in them. Anyone who is taken to the trees will most likely not return to the academy because they are most likely dead. Before Elwood entered The Nickel Academy, he believed that all people are inherently good, but he learns quickly that this is not true. His associate, Turner, helps get rid of that mindset because he shows him the truth as they move through their day-to-day activities.
Overall, this book is heartbreaking. The fact that this is based on an actual reform school is a huge problem. This should not have ever existed and it makes me wonder if there are places like this still around. If you have not purchased or borrowed this book, you should do so soon!
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