There are some books you wish you love when you read them. You want to love them with all your heart and soul. The Nickel Boys was one such book for me. I quite enjoyed and liked The Underground Railroad and I wanted more out of The Nickel Boys. I did. I was expecting a lot – to be emotionally turned inside-out by the end of the read, which sadly did not happen to me at all.
When any book is such a struggle to read and get through, you know you will never revisit it or recommend it. The Nickel Boys sadly is that book for me this year.
The book starts off with great promise. The first part of the book is written with great insight, sensitivity, and empathy throughout. It is about Elwood Curtis and his life out of the juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy and inside of it. For a black teenager in the early 60s, all it takes is one mistake to destroy his future. The Nickel Academy is a hellish reform school, who has the outer façade of creating moral and upright citizens of delinquents who have lost their way. Beneath all of this, is a world of torture, discrimination, and instances that end in death.
Elwood’s grandmother Harriet, his dreams, his ambitions, and his idea of a free world are all left behind when he enters The Nickel Academy by no fault of his. Whitehead’s inspiration of the Nickel Academy came from the infamous Dozier school that made headlines as fake graveyards were discovered on the closed school’s grounds.
The Nickel Boys is mainly set outside of the school – part one and part three at that. While a lot is also set in it, as you can read in part two, as a reader I was left underwhelmed and wanting more. Also, Elwood suddenly is thrown in a world where he meets several characters (but naturally) and yet I could feel nothing for them. I wanted to. I so wanted to be immersed in this book, but I just couldn’t. For instance, Turner (one of the boys Elwood befriends) was one such character that wasn’t explored enough in my opinion. The constant battle of his pessimism and Elwood’s optimism is the only thing that stayed (beautifully done at that).
I understood the book – the nuances, the being an accomplice to what was going on inside the house for every boy once you walked into its doors to even the question of loyalty in a place like The Nickel Academy. Yet, with all its nuances and sometimes brilliant prose, I was left wanting more. The threads somehow didn’t connect and by the time I reached Part Three, I was drained of any comprehension to move on with the read. There is also no iota of character development. The book could’ve been longer and perhaps more time spent in letting us know about the characters and their lives, which sadly did not happen.
And yes, the dignity of human life, the assertion of black lives mattering, the understanding of injustices, and more than anything else persistence of the human spirit comes across in the book in bits and pieces, but I wish it was held together strongly. The book falters and stumbles, without any direction. The Nickel Boys was one book I was waiting to read with great anticipation. I wish I had enjoyed it with similar enthusiasm.