Friday, April 12, 2024

Reading group: The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

Only four of us to discuss this book suggested by Doug (who couldn't be present), and all four of us found it a worthwhile, if not gripping read.

It begins with a Prologue relating the uncovering by university archeology students of a secret cemetery in the grounds of a Florida former boys' reformatory school, in which are buried the bodies of clearly mutilated boys. Not that the cemetery was secret to the boys once attending the school, nor the fact that behind the school's public profile as a place of education and rehabilitation, it was in fact a hell of cruelty, abuse and racism. The Prologue ends with a former back 'student', or more appropriately inmate, who 'goes by the name of Elwood Curtis', deciding to return from New York for the public inquiry.

The narrative now switches to 1962, when Elwood, a conscientious and studious boy being brought up by his grandmother, receives for Christmas a record album of speeches by Martin Luther King, which deeply affects him and colours his view of the world as he matures. We follow his maturing as he works in the local newsagents' (persuading the newsagent to stock anti-racist journals), studies hard (encouraged in his both his education and his idealism by his activist teacher) and dares to attend a protest. Until one day, on the way to attend the college in which he has enrolled for night-school, through no fault of his own he is picked up by the police and ends up in Nickel.

We then follow the horrors of life at Nickel through Elwood's perspective, a nightmare for all, but especially for the black boys who are segregated from the white boys in the school and treated even more harshly. Our member Ann said that a most remarkable thing about the book is the way in which Whitehead manages to lay completely bare the horror in an almost matter-of-fact way, never once being melodramatic or vying for the emotion strings of the reader - which keeps you reading, never needing to turn away from the horror, yet which somehow in the end makes it all the more horrifying. (It's also horrifying to read in the Author's Acknowledgements that the book is inspired by the story of a real Florida school.)

Whether or not the idealistic Elwood and the more cynical Turner, a fellow inmate who befriends him, will escape Nickel becomes a major plot point, and I think it would be wrong of me, for those who haven't read the book, to reveal what happens, and to discuss in specific detail what we made of it, since the outcome turns on a major (and quite stunning) revelation, knowing which would I think adversely affect how you read the whole book. Mark said he thought it was amazingly cleverly done. Ann and I both said that we had had inklings of it now and then throughout the book, but I simply wondered at those moments if these were narrative mistakes. My initial reaction when I came to the revelation was that it had been tricksy, though Ann and Mark argued for it convincingly on thematic grounds. I also commented that there was little psychological exploration of the fallout of this revelation for characters, but Ann and Mark felt that psychological exploration wasn't the purpose of this book, its purpose being more that of journalistic exposure. I always argue that the main political strength of novels is psychological and emotional, but I had to agree that this novel was compelling. However, John, who strongly agrees with me on this point about novels and psychology, said that he'd found it less compelling than did the rest of us, which may be because the material was very familiar to him from his work as an child psychologist, so that the exposure project didn't work so well on him. Mark did agree that the twist/revelation did actually smack of airport-type novels, but he thought that that was in fact another political strength, Ann corroborating this by saying that she felt far more people would read this novel than would read the more obviously literary Toni Morrison (books of whom we have discussed here, and here where we discuss Morrison's own view that novel readers need to be 'moved' rather than simply 'touched'). And the Nickel Boys is indeed beautifully written, in tough, clean prose.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here