- - Friday, July 26, 2019


In the summer of 2014, the up-and-about-to-come-even-further African-American writer Colson Whitehead read an article about a monstrously cruel “reform school” in Marianna, Florida, and immediately saw its novelistic possibilities.

But shortly thereafter, the life of the young Harvard-educated journalist and fiction writer got quite busy. First, his 2016 novel, “The Underground Railroad,” hit the best-seller lists, stayed for months, and won him a Pulitzer and a National Book Award.

Next, he was anointed a certified extra-smart guy by being awarded both a Guggenheim and a MacArthur [aka Genius] Fellowship. So the article idea went onto a back burner where it percolated,

Little wonder he was so intrigued. A study done by two Southern universities stated, in part, “The purpose of this investigation is to determine the location of missing children buried at the former Florida Industrial School, also known as the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in order to excavate and repatriate the remains … During the course of this investigation, 55 graves were excavated.” 

In “Underground Railroad,” Mr. Whitehead imagined two African-Americans, a male and a female, who escape from their Southern slave-master via the historical route called the Underground Railroad; in “The Nickel Boys,” the co-protagonists are two males, and though you may guess the ending, I wager you won’t guess its fascinating details. The mastery he showed in “Underground” is sharpened to an even finer point in this novel.

Here’s a sample of the author’s prose: “… Carter, the houseman, ordered Elwood over to the warehouse for a new detail. Turner was there, along with a young white man, a lanky sort with a beatnik slouch and a greasy spray of blond hair. Elwood had seen him around smoking [which was forbidden] in the shade of various buildings. His name was Harper and according to staff records, he worked in Community Service. Harper looked Elwood over, and said, ‘He’ll do.’”

And, in describing the visit of Elwood’s beloved step-mother, Mr. Whitehead writes, “[He] held her longer than usual, nuzzling into her shoulder. Then he remembered the other boys and withdrew. Best not to show too much of himself.”

Harper, driving an unmarked school van, takes boys like Elwood and Turner into town to perform a variety of free tasks for townspeople who are in some way important to the school. It’s the moralistic, straight-arrow Elwood’s introduction to the essential hypocrisy of the system, at Nickel and in life.  Transgressions, even minor ones, are punished by sadistic whippings (in a building where a huge fan’s noise drowns out the screams of pain).

All the youths fear the midnight storm trooper-like visits of the staff members who take the next victim to the house where he is shackled onto iron rings and beaten so badly that the next stop may well be the infirmary. Elwood’s turn in the barrel is so brutal that he is hospitalized for weeks — and carries the scars for life.

Elwood and Turner come to represent not just good men unfairly caught in the grasp of evildoers, but also, and more clearly, the plight of the black man caught in the clutches of a malevolent (white) society. Then and, by implication, now.

In an interview, Mr. Whitehead said, “That’s the slave state. You’re an object, you’re not a human being. Going through oral accounts of former slaves, you come across the most atrocious things, obviously. Slavery is terrible. But there’s all sorts of weird facts that come up, and you sit there sort of stunned.

“One person was just like, ‘You know, I was sold down to another plantation, and for the first time wore clothes.’ This person didn’t wear clothes until she was six, was just walking around like an animal, and that’s how her masters viewed her.

“I have to dramatize the movement from object to personhood … That’s a very important moment in most slave narratives, when the person learns secretly … how to read or gets freed and learns his or her letters, and then a whole new world opens up.

“How do you narrate that new self, that new awakening, from episode to episode? How can I come up with different ways of getting this uneducated person … to a place to where she’s a reader and interpreting history and becoming an actor in history, an actor in her own life?”

While the boys (and the girls) at Nickel are not given anything to read, throughout his ordeal, and his life, Elwood is sustained by his memory of an album he’d been given by his grandmother and listened to repeatedly as a young boy, “Martin Luther King at Zion Hill.” The part that he found hardest to live up to was the part about loving — and forgiving — one’s enemies.

• John Greenya, a Washington writer and critic, is the author of “Gorsuch: The Judge Who Speaks For Himself” (Simon and Schuster, 2018).

• • •

By Colson Whitehead
Doubleday, $24.95, 213 pages

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