Colson Whitehead shines a light on the dark recesses of American history with The Nickel Boys. Inspired by the haunting true story of the Arthur G. Dozier reform school for boys, Whitehead’s fictional account is as important as it is disturbing. Operating out of Marianna, a small town in the panhandle, black boys were routinely beaten, raped, and killed by staff. As of 2011, at least 80 bodies were found in a mass gravesite on the school grounds.
The story revolves around Elwood, a young boy, coming of age and beginning to engage with the civil rights movement. He’s a good kid; works at a convenience store, idolizes Martin Luther King Jr., and is starting to find his way in the world. Elwood is planning to go to college when he finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, and is ultimately sent to reform school, The Nickel Academy. Elwood quickly discovers the atrocities occurring behind the walls, himself falling victim to brutal beatings.
The story is told in a uniquely non-linear format, which works well with Whitehead’s story. It’s not until the epilogue that everything comes full circle, and the reality of what you’ve read sets in. So often the dark parts of the past are “razed, cleared and neatly erased from history”, and I’m grateful to Whitehead for taking this on and bringing attention to the boys lost and forever changed at Dozier school.