In ‘The Nickel Boys,’ Colson Whitehead Depicts a Real-Life House of Horrors

The New York Times
By Frank Rich

Though the story had been hiding in plain sight for decades, it was not until 2014 that Colson Whitehead stumbled upon the inspiration for his haunted and haunting new novel, “The Nickel Boys.” As he explains in his acknowledgments, he learned through The Tampa Bay Times about archaeology students at the University of South Florida who were digging up and trying to identify the remains of students who had been tortured, raped and mutilated, then buried in a secret graveyard, at the state-run Dozier School for Boys in the Panhandle town of Marianna. Dozier’s century-plus reign of terror ended only in 2011, and graves were still being discovered after Whitehead’s novel went to press. New evidence disinterred in March may raise the fatality count above 80. We will never learn the exact number, any more than we will ever have a full accounting of all the other hidden graves where crushed black bodies have been disposed of like garbage since the birth of the nation.

In “The Nickel Boys,” the house of horrors is fictionally memorialized as the Nickel Academy of Eleanor, Fla. The discovery of an unmarked graveyard is an inconvenience both for the real estate company developing an office park on the site and for the state’s attorney, who thought his investigation into abuse at the academy was closed. “The whole damned place,” Whitehead writes in the deadpan voice of his prologue, needed to be “razed, cleared and neatly erased from history, which everyone agreed was long overdue.” Such, after all, is the American way: Acknowledge (usually) the country’s foundational sin of slavery, recognize (sometimes) the serial crimes that have been committed against black Americans ever since, celebrate the intervening signposts of hope (Supreme Court decisions, civil rights laws, a “post-racial” presidency), then move on until the next conflagration prompts calls for a new “national conversation on race.” 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. Nickel “was just one place,” Whitehead reminds us late in this book, “but if there was one, there were hundreds, hundreds” of others, “scattered across the land like pain factories.” Like Nickel, they’ll be exhumed only if there is “anyone who cares to listen.”

Were Whitehead’s only aim to shine an unforgiving light on a redacted chapter of racial terrorism in the American chronicle, that would be achievement enough. What he is doing in his new novel, as in its immediate predecessor, is more challenging than that. While race and its intersection with the American mythos have informed his fiction since his debut, “The Intuitionist” (1998), and played out in an eclectic variety of novelistic genres since (from the coming-of-age reverie “Sag Harbor” to the zombie-populated “Zone One”), he has now produced back-to-back historical novels, in the broadest definition of that term, that in sum offer an epic account of America’s penchant for paying lip service to its original sin while failing to face its full horror and its undying legacy of recidivism.

The books feel like a mission, and it’s an essential one. In a mass culture where there is no shortage of fiction, nonfiction, movies and documentaries dramatizing slavery and its sequels under other names (whether Jim Crow or mass incarceration or “I can’t breathe”), Whitehead is implicitly asking why so much of this output has so little effect or staying power. He applies a master storyteller’s muscle not just to excavating a grievous past but to examining the process by which Americans undermine, distort, hide or “neatly erase” the stories he is driven to tell. Witness, for instance, the “Twilight Zone”-esque Museum of Natural Wonders in “The Underground Railroad,” where the repeatedly brutalized runaway teenage slave Cora, in a fleeting simulacrum of freedom, is enlisted to act before white viewers in glass-enclosed dioramas sanitizing “Life on the Slave Ship” and a “typical day” on the plantation. “Truth,” Whitehead writes, “was a changing display in a shop window, manipulated by hands when you weren’t looking, alluring and ever out of reach.” In this writer’s powerful reckoning, those who enable historical amnesia are accessories to the crimes against humanity whose erasure they facilitate.

At a little over 200 pages, “The Nickel Boys” is even leaner than its predecessor and no less devastating. The calendar, if not history, has advanced more than a century since “The Underground Railroad,” to the early-to-mid-1960s. The protagonist, a teenager named Elwood Curtis, was, like Cora, abandoned in childhood by a mother who fled her hopeless circumstances, leaving him in the care of a tenacious grandmother, Harriet, a cleaning woman in a Tallahassee hotel. Harriet and Elwood’s family history encapsulates a larger history. Harriet’s father “died in jail after a white lady downtown accused him of not getting out of her way on the sidewalk.” Her husband, Elwood’s grandfather, was killed “in a rumble with a bunch of Tallahassee crackers over who had next on the pool table.” Her son-in-law, Elwood’s father, served in the Pacific theater during World War II. “He loved the Army, and even received a commendation for a letter he wrote to his captain about inequities in the treatment of colored solders,” Whitehead writes. But then he came home to find that not even the G.I. Bill could override an intractable reality: “What was the point of a no-interest loan when a white bank won’t let you step inside?” Bitter, angry and living in a town where “white boys” were prone to “lynching black men in uniform,” he and Elwood’s mother lit off for California in the middle of the night when their son was 6, and “didn’t even send a postcard.”

We first meet the boy they left behind as a diligent senior at a segregated Tallahassee high school that, like so many others, functions as if the Supreme Court had never ruled on Brown v. Board of Education. The preternaturally “sturdy” Elwood — universally regarded as “intelligent and hardworking and a credit to his race” — stars in the students’ annual Emancipation Day play, no doubt of a piece with the displays in that Museum of Natural Wonders. His role is Thomas Jackson, “the man who informs the Tallahassee slaves that they are free,” and Elwood clings to the illusion that the “free world” is within his grasp too. For all the efforts of Jim Crow America to deny him, like his enslaved forebears, the power of literacy — even the hand-me-down textbooks from white schools are defaced with racial epithets — he perseveres. Elwood’s home may have no television, but he falls under the “luxurious sway of Life magazine” at the neighborhood tobacco shop where he has an after-school job, feasting on its photos of the rising civil rights movement. He listens incessantly to the sermons on a treasured 1962 Christmas gift, the only record he owns, “Martin Luther King at Zion Hill.” He has the luck to be mentored by a teacher who points him toward advanced classes on offer at a nearby technical college.

Yet Elwood is shipped to Nickel before he gets out of high school. Like countless others before and after him, he is incarcerated for the crime of riding in a car (in Elwood’s case, as a passenger) while black. Officially, Nickel is not a prison. Opened in 1899 as the “Florida Industrial School for Boys,” it bills itself as a reform school, with the captives “called students, rather than inmates, to distinguish them from the violent offenders that populated prisons.” No matter. “All the violent offenders,” Elwood discovers, “were on staff.” Trevor Nickel, who became the school’s director in the World War II era with “a mandate for reform,” had landed the job by impressing Klan meetings with “his impromptu speeches on moral improvement and the value of work.” Once installed, he stressed “fitness” above all else and “often watched the boys shower to monitor the progress of their physical education.”

Nickel houses white boys too, also treated viciously, although allocated marginally better grub and less egregiously hard labor than their segregated black peers. What Nickel boys of both races have in common is an annual black-versus-white boxing match, an addictive blood sport for the salivating locals, and the sole occasion when the black boys have an “acquaintance with justice.” The black and white inmates’ only other common ground is the so-called White House, a former work shed where the school’s superintendent “delivered the law” with the merciless application of a three-foot-long strap called Black Beauty, among other medieval instruments. The sound of the flesh-ripping whippings and the ensuing screams are drowned out by a giant industrial fan whose roar “traveled all over campus, farther than physics allowed,” and whose gusts splatter blood on the White House walls. Even more heinous punishments are administered “out back,” the last stop before those unmarked graves.

Elwood’s story is as much a slave narrative as Cora’s. Whitehead tells it with the same unstinting insistence on serving the violence full up as he did in “The Underground Railroad,” and with the same stubborn refusal to provide escape hatches for his characters or his readers. As Cora’s white benefactors could offer her at most transitory shelter from unceasing cruelties, so there is no Atticus Finch riding to the rescue in the Panhandle. Once again the characters in search of the chimera of freedom must flee from homicidal human bloodhounds (and sometimes actual ones) through an infinite labyrinth of grotesque obstacles. Once again Whitehead jumps back or forth in time, sometimes to a scene of relative hope and sanctuary, only to shatter the illusion with another chronological gear shift upending any notion that these stories can ever find a peaceful resting place, let alone an ending, let alone a happy one. The elasticity of time in “The Nickel Boys” feels so organic that only when you put the book down do you fully appreciate that its sweep encompasses much of the last century as well as this one. While Whitehead doesn’t reprise the wholesale magic realism of his previous novel — in which the figurative underground railroad of history is made literal — he does pull off a brilliant sleight-of-hand that elevates the mere act of resurrecting Elwood’s buried story into at once a miracle and a tragedy.

Whitehead also wrestles with the words of Dr. King, so firmly implanted in Elwood and yet seemingly impossible to reconcile with his Jim Crow reality: Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities after midnight hours, and drag us out onto some wayside road, and beat us and leave us half-dead, and we will still love you. How can you “trust in the ultimate decency that lived in every heart,” if they are out to break you? Could it possibly be true that “hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that”? “What a thing to ask,” Elwood can’t help thinking. “What an impossible thing.”

“The Nickel Boys” offers its own rending response to this conundrum. It is no spoiler to say that the long arc of history that Whitehead traces in these two books, spanning from circa 1820 to circa 2014, remains unresolved. It was just 60 miles from the site where those University of South Florida archaeology students have been digging up the forgotten dead of the Dozier School for Boys that a voice cried out “Shoot them!” when the topic of another despised population — in this instance, migrants at the Mexican border — was raised at a raucous political rally in May. “Only in the Panhandle can you get away with that statement,” the president of the United States responded, to laughter and cheers from the adoring white crowd. But in truth, you can get away with shooting “them,” and not just rhetorically, in other places in America too. Faulkner’s adage that the past “is not even past” — our perennial mantra in this context — has never seemed more insufficient than it does now. A writer like Whitehead, who challenges the complacent assumption that we even fathom what happened in our past, has rarely seemed more essential.

Colson Whitehead
The Nickel Boys