The Nickel Boys

I can’t stop thinking about this book. Or talking about it. And now writing about it!

I posted a micro review on Twitter that sums up my feelings in three tweets:

Colson Whitehead won a Pulitzer (#2!) for #The Nickel Boys. It’s perfect. Cinematic. Heartbreakingly bittersweet. It’s a damn good story, beautifully written.

But the deeper level, the reality behind the story, elevates it. This novel resonates, lingers and inspires. The Nickel Boys is a true American Classic up there with To Kill a Mockingbird and True Grit and The Man Who Came Uptown by George Pelecanos #TheNickelBoys #pelecanos

Recommended to anyone high school age and up. I’d like to assign this to everyone in the USA. Just read it. #TheNickelBoys #bookreviews

It’s not a typical review in that it doesn’t divulge anything about the story. It wasn’t just the twitter character limit that held me back – even though I have more room here, I’m hesitant to give away too much. It’s not a long novel and I recommend just diving in and letting the story reveal itself.

Here’s my very brief summary: The Nickel Boys tells the story of a young Black boy in Tallahassee, Florida growing up in the segregated 1960s. Elwood is a good kid with the bad luck to get sent to the notorious local reform school for boys. It’s a story of friendship, of abuse, of injustice and of hope. It’s wryly funny at times, mostly through the musings and thoughts of the kids, who are much wiser and better human beings than most of the adults in the book.

The hard part about enjoying this book is that it’s based in reality, in the story of the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida. Real boys were abused there, and many were killed and buried in unmarked graves.

Reading The Nickel Boys inspired me in different ways. First of all, I’m definitely reading Whitehead’s first Pulitzer Prize winner, The Underground Railroad, soon. Whitehead is extraordinarily talented. His writing is tight and sparse with no wasted words. I love a writer that leaves you wanting a little more.

I was also motivated to start listening to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches and sermons. His recordings, which were played on the radio and released on albums back in the ’60s, are vital to this story. His sermons led me to Robert Kennedy’s speech announcing MLK’s death to a crowd on April 4th, 1968. Chills. This led me to one of Kennedy’s many biographies, Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit, by Chris Matthews. And so my education continues…

Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

Stephen Covey

Colson Whitehead won the Pulitzer for The Nickel Boys in early May, three weeks before George Floyd’s murder. I read it shortly after. I think it’s a transcendent book for a transformational time. I only hope that it’s Pulitzer status will help it become even more widely read.

I keep reflecting on the parallels between Elwood and the late Representative John Lewis, who was also a young man during the 1960s. Who also heard MLK on the radio, inspiring him to begin his historic path.

I believe that one of the best ways forward for our nation starts locally, in our homes and backyards and workplaces. Just ask about and listen to each other’s stories. Try to put ourselves in each other’s shoes. This helps us understand where people come from and what influences their perspectives. And it also helps us see just how similar we are when it comes to what’s important, things like freedom and friendship. Two sides of the same human coin. The Nickel Boys, in my opinion, is a great conversation starter. I encourage you to read, feel and discuss.


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