The Nickel Boys focuses on two young boys, Ellwood and Turner who are accused of crimes and sent to The Nickel Academy, a correctional school in the state of Florida, in the 1960s. The book follows these two young people as they try to survive. The Nickel Academy actually existed and it is very clear to readers that Whitehead has researched the topic thoroughly and the historical basis of the story makes the ending much more powerful.
The relationship between Turner and Ellwood is excellently portrayed. Both characters are believable and the light-hearted back and forth conversations between these characters provide some lightness and hope which balances out the bleaker sections of the book.
A key idea in the novel is unfairness; the boys often get involved in games such as boxing matches and dish-washing races only to realise later the extent to which the game had been biased against them. Whitehead uses this unfairness to explore the injustice in American society and the huge gap between the concept of justice and how things work out in real life.
Justice is such a key theme to this book that it seems a shame that there is a jump in time between when Ellwood gets accused of a crime and when he arrives in the Nickel Academy. The readers are not shown the court room scene. I can see why Whitehead did this – courtroom scenes can sometimes feel a bit clichéd. However, some recent novels such as The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner have used court scenes excellently to present the flaws of the legal system. I would have loved to have seen how Whitehead presented the judicial process.
Colson Whitehead received numerous awards and widespread critical acclaim for his 2016 novel The Underground Railroad. The Nickel Boys is not quite as inventive or satisfying as his previous novel but the beautiful way Whitehead presents his main characters makes this book absolutely unmissable.
Published by Doubleday, available on Amazon