2020 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction Winner

Before 2016, Colson Whitehead was already a successful and established writer. His first five novels have received various distinctions across the world of literature. His debut novel, The Intuitionist, published in 1999, was even chosen as a finalist for the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award. He has also collected several encomiums over the years for his literary works. However, it was in 2016 that Colson Whitehead became a household name when his sixth novel, The Underground Railroad, won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, an unprecedented feat was last achieved in  1993 by E. Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News.

In 2019, Whitehead made his long-awaited literary comeback a couple of years following his 2016 breakthrough with The Underground Railroad. His seventh novel, The Nickel Boys was warmly welcomed by the reading public and was an instantaneous success, climbing up various bestseller lists in days. It has also received positive feedback from literary pundits. The novel also earned Whitehead the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. With his recent victory, Whitehead became just the fourth writer to win the prestigious award at least twice, joining the elite company of Booth Tarkington, William Faulkner, and John Updike. What is The Nickel Boys

The Nickel Boys commenced in the 2010s. Following an exposé on the atrocities committed and the eventual discovery of secretly buried bodies within its premises, a full blown investigation was launched against the defunct Nickel Academy, a reform school in Eleanor, Florida. As the abhorrent acts committed within the premises of the reform school are slowly surfacing, many men previously incarcerated at the Nickel Academy started coming forward to share their own stories of abuse they have experienced. One of these victims forced to grapple with his painful past is Elwood Curtis. However, confronting the past is synonymous to reopening wounds that have already healed. Now a successful businessman in New York, the weight of the past is a burden waiting to unload.

“It was crazy to run and crazy not to run. How could a boy look past the school’s property line, see that free and living world beyond, and not contemplate a dash to freedom? To write one’s own story for once. To forbid the thought of escape, even that slightest butterfly thought of escape, was to murder one’s humanity”

~ Colson Whitehead, The Nickel Boys

As more details of the abuses committed at the Academy surfaced, the narrative shifts to the 1960s. In Tallahassee, Florida, Elwood Curtis is a young man with verve and intelligence to spare. Even though he was still in high school, his mind was sharpened by his desire to rise from the quagmires of poverty. Roused by Martin Luther King Jr., he possessed an ideal view of justice. To expound his horizon, he elected to attend university classes. On the first day of his classes, fate interceded. On the way to the university, he hitchhiked with a fellow African-American man. They were later pulled over by the cops and it was soon discovered that the car was stolen. Elwood’s pleas for his innocence fell to deaf ears and was eventually convicted as a delinquent.

For his juvenile delinquency sentence, he was transferred to Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory in Eleanor, Florida. At the Academy, Elwood met and befriended his fellow student, Turner. Turner was Elwood’s antithesis. Elwood, believing that good behavior will be rewarded, was resolute in serving his sentence without any untoward incidents, without calling the attention of the authorities. He followed the rules and respected the authorities. Turner, on the other hand, was, by nature, a cynic. He also distrusts the Academy’s administration. Beyond their differences, Elwood and Turner have forged a friendship that will be tested by the harrowing conditions in the Academy.

Following the successful publication of The Underground Railroad which dealt with slavery, Whitehead mentioned in an interview with Vanity Fair that he “didn’t want to do another heavy book.”1 He further elaborated that he no longer intended to write about depressing subjects. His perspective, however, changed in 2016 when Donald Trump was, in an upset, elected as the President of the United States. The widening division amongst the denizens of the most powerful country in the world as a result of Trump’s victory compelled Whitehead to diagnose the current state of affairs in the country he calls home. The result was his first novel since The Underground Railroad.

Just like its predecessor, The Nickel Academy took inspiration from historical accounts. In 2011, Dozier School for Boys, a reform school in Marianna, Florida, was shut down. A year later, it found itself on top of the headlines after the bodies of over 50 boys were retrieved in the school’s premises. Established in the 1900s, Dozier has long been haunted by claims of abuse, violence, and death. Even years before Dozier’s closure in 2011, many survivors have come forward with their stories of brutality, beatings, torture, and even rape. However, their claims were dismissed and went unheeded. Very few listened and had the school not failed a state inspection in 2009, who knows how long the abuses and cruelty will last.

“People get rid of plenty when they move—sometimes they’re changing not just places but personalities. Up or down “the economic ladder.” Maybe the bed won’t fit in the new place, or the sofa’s too boxy, or they’re newlyweds and put a new living-room set on their registry. A lot of these white-flight families splitting for the suburbs, Long Island and Westchester, they’re making a whole new start—shaking the city off, and that means getting rid of how they used to see themselves.”

~ Colson Whitehead, The Nickel Boys

It was these same abuses and violent scenes that Elwood and Turner witnessed in the Academy. Rather than a quality education, the students were forced to learn the hard way, through performing manual labor and facing harsh corporal punishments for infractions. The staff who were tasked to oversee the system were also co-conspirators as they overlooked sexual and physical abuses. Everyone was practically a slave and those who complain about these abuses or interfere in public beatings were also punished. Whilst the school accepted students of all colors, there was a glaring dichotomy in how the white students and the non-white students were treated. Not only were they segregated from their white counterparts but the Black students were treated way worse, the punishments meted to them harsher.

The Nickel Academy has become a symbol of our declining humanity. Violence has become ubiquitous, the innocent were harshly treated, abuses – mental, physical, and sexual – were overlooked, and the weak and the helpless were rampantly mistreated. But even in a world where terror reigned and violence lingered, there is still a light that beacons through the darkness. Amidst all the horrific scenes happening within the premises of the school, the friendship of Elwood and Turner blossomed. They stood for each other, supported each other, and was each other’s source of strength. Despite the inhumane conditions, they held on to the promise of a better tomorrow.

The novel aimed to rouse anger at a system that perpetually allowed the perpetration of such cruel acts. What really mattered in the Academy, as Elwood and Turner would soon learn, are the whims of the white person in charge. It was about the inequity and the injustice experienced by the helpless and the weak. It is a necessary and critical tale especially in a period when racism is slowly becoming the norm again rather than anathema. The realities underlined by the novel are seminal in the contemporary. In 2014, when Whitehead first encountered the story of Dozier, many innocent Black men were shot and killed by police officers. It is a serious concern that still reverberates today. It appeals to the proverbial heartstrings with its vivid and graphic images of atrocious acts and abuses.

The power of The Nickel Boys lies on the strength of the messages of the subjects it underscored. Pain, despair, anger, and helplessness reverberated all throughout the narrative but it was nevertheless brimming with hope and positivity. The novel was also about finding and building friendships in the unlikeliest places. Subtly interwoven in the narrative are the camaraderie and character development. The writing, however, lacked power and was generic. The story was predictable and, on some levels, felt like it was a story one has read several times before. The voice of Whitehead was obscured by Elwood and Turner’s harrowing experience.

“The world continued to instruct: Do not love for they will disappear, do not trust for you will be betrayed, do not stand up for you will be swatted down. Still he heard those higher imperatives: Love and that love will be returned, trust in the righteous path and it will lead you to deliverance, fight and things will change. He never listened, never saw what was plainly in front of him, and now he had been plucked from the world altogether.”

~ Colson Whitehead, The Nickel Boys

Despite its flaws, The Nickel Boys is a timely and seminal narrative. It is about a lot of things that were woven together detailing the ills of a system that failed and continues to fail many of its people. Rule of law is rendered meaningless by the corruption of the bodies intended to make them work. Covering a vast ground, the novel was also about race and how it defined the prevailing system. Yes, it was about abuses and violence but it was also about friendship, and making hope flourish in the darkest placed. Rarely an easy and pleasurable read, The Nickel Boys was a heart wrenching story about the experiences of two boys, and many before and after them.

Ratings

73%

Characters (30%) – 24%
Plot (30%) – 21%
Writing (25%) – 16%
Overall Impact (15%) – 12%

It was in 2016 when I first encountered Colson Whitehead. His latest novel, The Underground Railroad was just declared as the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. His book was everywhere and even though I kept on encountering it in the bookstores, I held back because he was an unfamiliar name. A year or two later, I again encountered the book and this time around, I decided to give the book a chance, and it was even part of my 2019 Top 20 Books Reading List. I had some issues with the book but it was still a good read. A couple of months later, I learned that he released a new work, The Nickel Boys. However, I was again apprehensive about buying the book until it was declared the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner. I bought the book and immediately immersed in it. Just like The Underground Railroad, The Nickel Boys was drawn with historical contexts. I liked the unusual friendship between Turner and Elwood; I do have a soft spot for such storylines. It cannot be denied that the narrative is timely and seminal. However, as I sift through the pages, I felt like I have read it before. It was predictable, and straightforward, too straightforward.

Book Specs

Author:  Colson Whitehead
Publisher: Anchor Books
Publishing Date: 2020
Number of Pages: 210
Genre: Historical Fiction, Bildungsroman

Synopsis

When Elwood Curtis, a black boy growing up in 1960s Tallahassee, is unfairly sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy, he finds himself trapped in a grotesque chamber of horrors. Elwood’s only salvation is his friendship with fellow “delinquent” Turner, which quickly deepens despite Turner’s conviction that Elwood is hopelessly naïve, that the world is crooked, and that the only way to survive is to scheme and avoid trouble. As life at the academy becomes ever more perilous, the tension between Elwood’s ideals and Turner’s skepticism leads to a decision with repercussions that will echo down the decades.

Based on the real story of a reform school that operated for 111 years and warped the lives of thousands of children, The Nickel Boys is a devastating, driven narrative that showcases a great American novelist writing at the height of his power.

About the Author

To learn more about the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Colson Whitehead, click here.


References:

1Israel, Yahdon (July 16, 2019). “The Outrage Was So Large and So Secret”: Colson Whitehead Talks Hope, Despair, and Fighting the Power in The Nickel Boys”Vanity Fair. Retrieved July 18, 2019.