The Nickel Academy was a malignant institution. The unmarked burial ground where forty-three bodies are found was discovered by chance. A young archaeology student stumbles across it while looking for a signal on her mobile phone. This burial ground only adds to the suspicion and conjecture that hangs over the Nickel Academy like a malicious miasma. The bones that are dug up are broken, fractured, skulls caved in. This burial ground was hidden for a reason. There had always been rumours about the site, but they had remained just that, rumours, until the bodies were found.
Elwood had always been a good boy, working hard at his job, his schoolwork, respectful. The hard work pays off and he is accepted into a coloured college.
Is it fate rolling the dice, when Elwood finds two rivets broken on his bike chain the first night he is heading to college? Is destiny playing games, when it is a man named Rodney driving a stolen vehicle who stops to give him a lift? Is it something as simple as sheer bad luck that they are pulled over by the police? Whatever it is, Elwood finds himself sentenced to the Nickel Academy for car theft.
As they pull up at the Nickel Academy, Elwood thinks, from its exterior appearance anyway, that it doesn’t look too bad. In fact, with its absence of walls and barbed wire, Elwood thinks it’s the nicest building he has ever seen. Little does he know how wrong he is, and how appearances can be dangerously deceiving.
After hearing the introduction spiel from the Superintendent Maynard Spencer, Elwood feels reassured that he will be alright, as long as he follows orders and behaves himself. Something, as the reader has discovered, he has always done growing up.
The first few days seem to go well, until Elwood intervenes in a fight in which one of the younger boys or “chucks” is getting bullied by two older boys. That night Elwood discovers, The White House. Two brown cars pull up and men with torches take all the boys involved in the fight. The White House is where the boys receive the strap, which is infamous enough to have its own name, “black beauty”. A large industrial fan covers any sounds made while the punishments are dished out. Elwood is the last boy to receive his punishment, he cannot tell how many lashes he receives because he passes out from the pain. Elwood realises how lucky he is when he is told by a boy that some boys never return from a trip to the White House. Elwood is finally starting to see the predicament he is in and the terrible secrets that are kept at Nickel Academy.
The fact that this novel is based on a real institution, the Arthur G Dozier School for Boys, and that 81 boys had died there adds a powerful gravitas to the narrative. To think that some of these boys were killed, probably for something trivial or minor, leaves you with a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach. Of course this book is about racism. The Nickel Academy is still segregated and still very much run by the white man. We can only be thankful that we are slowly moving on from such atrocious institutions, and behaviour, even if it is too late for the boys who died at these institutions. Novels like this, and authors like Whitehead, can make their lives worthwhile and not wasted.
I'm the author of the novels Zone One; Sag Harbor; The Intuitionist, a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway award; John Henry Days, which won the Young Lions Fiction Award, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; and Apex Hides the Hurt, winner of the PEN Oakland Award. I've also written a book of essays about my home town, The Colossus of New York, and a non-fiction account of the 2011 World Series of Poker called The Noble Hustle. A recipient of a Whiting Writers' Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a MacArthur Fellowship, I live in New York City. THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD was longlisted for the 2017 Booker Prize.
There is a wonderful video and interview with Whitehead talking about THE NICKEL BOYS here - https://www.cbsnews.com/news/extended-interview-colson-whitehead-on-writing-the-nickel-boys/