The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

This was the selection for my book group months ago. We had chosen not to meet on Zoom once the gathering restrictions started, so we met in person in my backyard at the beginning of this week. (We’re a small group – just five of us – so it’s easy to meet and talk at a safe distance.) It was really good to catch up and talk about how these months have been.

Even though we had this book on the list for months, I started reading it on Saturday night and hadn’t quite finished on Monday. I had been a little wary of this book because it is about the brutality at a “school” for teenage boys who had been arrested for crimes they did, or in the case of the black protagonist, didn’t do. But I am so glad I read this book. Although the descriptions are horrific, it is just another piece of sorrowful knowledge of the power of systemic racism.

At the beginning I was trying to identify the time frame. Then the author mentioned the Cassius Clay/Sonny Liston fights, and I noted that happened in 1964-1965. I was a teenager then just like these boys. It really brought the dismal truth home to think about it that way.

Although this is a novel, it is based on a real school in Florida, the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna. The story came out when a group of archaeology students from the University of South Florida came upon a bunch of unmarked graves at the former school site. Just that knowledge itself is enough to clue you in on the terrible tragedy of such a place.

This is a shortish – 224 pages – and Whitehead is a wonderful writer. The book won the Pulitzer Prize and I can certainly see why. This is a fine book.

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