“The Nickel Boys”, by Colson Whitehead, a review

Fleet, 2020

Colson Whitehead is a black American author, twice awarded Pulitzer Prize for two novels – for “The Underground Railway” (2916) and for “The Nickel Boys” (2020).

I read “The Nickel Boys” over a long weekend this May. The novel pierced my heart. At times, I felt an almost existential dread as I turned the pages. Yet I knew that I had to continue reading, that this novel was truth telling of a heart breaking and essential kind.

I was reminded of Primo Levi, who in a poem at the start of his equally terrible and true “If This Is a Man”, (1) urges you to carve his words into your heart. Some truths must never be forgotten.

I was reminded, too, that much of the wealth of South Dorset’s Conservative MP, Richard Drax, is historically derived from slavery. His ancestor, James Drax, established the model of chattel slavery in Barbados, which was replicated across the Caribbean and in the southern states of America.

Richard Drax still owns his family’s ancestral slave plantation, Drax Hall, and refuses, allegedly, to consider making reparation or restitution to the people of Barbados. The Vice Principal of the University of the West Indies, Sir Hilary Beckles, has described the estate, with its rich sugar fields, as a “killing ground”.

The state in which “The Nickel Boys” is set is one of many in America tainted by the institution of chattel slavery, one in which, as in so many other states, crimes against humanity were committed and justified – by the same mindset that permeates Henry Drax’s 1786 “Instructions for the Management of Drax Hall”.

These instructions talk of “blacks (being) … commonly addicted to thieving” – “many … chusing (sic) to kill themselves to avoid Correction”. (2)

Colson, in his acknowledgments, says that his novel was prompted by the story of the Dozier School for Boys in Mariana, Florida. Reading an article in “The Tampa Times”, he became aware of the fate of students at the school who had been tortured, raped and mutilated, then buried in a secret graveyard.

In “The Nickel Boys”, this house of horrors is fictionalised as “The Nickel Academy”, of Eleanor, Florida.

Nickel “was just one place”, Colson reminds us late in the book, “but if there was one, there were hundreds, hundreds (of others) … “scattered across the land like pain factories”.

In a review of the novel, the New York Times asks:

“If an African-American writer like Whitehead, whose last novel was ‘The Underground Railroad’ didn’t hear of the Dozier School until 2014, imagine how many other such stories still remain hidden and awaiting exposure, whether literally buried under faceless contemporary gentrification (e.g.: the mass graves of the hundreds of blacks slaughtered in the Tulsa massacre of 1921) or figuratively buried in the national collective consciousness of denial”. (3)

Reading the book, we witness the martyrdom of Elwood Curtis, a teenager growing up in Florida in the 1960’s, inspired by the words and example of Martin Luther King.

Elwood is brought up by his grandmother, Harriet, a cleaner in a Tallahassee Hotel. His parents have abandoned him.

Elwood’s father, who served in the Pacific during the Second World War, faces only cruel, casual, violent racism on his return – “they were lynching black men in uniform”.

“… it was one thing to allow someone to kill for you and another to let him live next door”.

Elwood is only six years old when his parents leave him – “they didn’t even send a post card”.

Elwood is a model student, hardworking and idealistic. But he has the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Accepting a lift in a stolen car, he is arrested together with the driver and sent to the Nickel Academy, a segregated Reform School, a murderous whitened sepulchre, where “going for an ice cream” has a terrible meaning.

Elwood clings to his illusions that truth and justice will prevail, even in the Nickel Academy. His fellow inmate, Turner, knows different and vows to bear witness.

We are taken on a terrible journey. The Nickel Academy is a place of no morality, a moral black hole.

Again, I was reminded of Primo Levi’s book, of a place where humanity was denied, although on an industrial scale.

I thought of another book, too, one by Stanley M Elkins, “Slavery, A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life”, (4) which compares the brutalisation of coloured salves to that of those incarcerated in Concentration Camps. (For example, Elkins compares the awful “Middle Passage” of African slaves across the Atlantic with the nightmarish train journeys across Eastern and Central Europe to the Camps.)

“The Nickel Boys” is a novel which reflects the psychic pain of slavery. It is a call for restitution, reparation and acknowledgement of that pain. It is a book which is hard to read, yet must be read.

George Floyd is known to the world for the manner of his death. Colson reminds us that there are many others, not known, not mourned, who have also been casually deprived of life.

Racism still pervades institutions and societies on both sides of the Atlantic.

Only recently, the first black editor of “British Vogue” wrote in a memoir of how he was told by a security guard that “deliveries go to the loading bay” when he arrived at work. (5)

Richard Drax still owns Drax Hall.


1 – Primo Levi – “if This Is a Man” – first published in 1947, a memoir by the Jewish writer and chemist, describing his arrest as a member of the Italian anti-fascist resistance during the Second World War, and his incarceration in Auschwitz.

2 – “Instructions for the Management of Drax Hall and the Irish-Hope Plantations”, by Henry Drax


3 – https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/14/books/review/nickel-boys-colson-whitehead.html

4 – University of Chicago Press, 3rd Edition, 1987

5 – Edward Enninful, “A Visible Man: A Memoir”, Bloomsbury, 2022