Colson Whitehead follows up his award-winning and best-selling Underground Railroad with a novel focusing on a boys’ reform school, the Nickel Academy, based on the notorious Dozier School for Boys in Florida. Main character Elwood Curtis, an intelligent ambitious teen, gets caught up in the backlash against the Civil Rights movement and ends up being sent to the school on ludicrous charges. This school is tough, but particularly on the black inmates, many of whom have found themselves there without just cause. They face segregation, malnutrition, cruelty, indiscriminate beatings and a number disappear without being seen again. Whitehead focuses on the out-of-place Elwood and his more street-savvy friend Turner and their experiences as teens in this hideous place alongside a later narrative of revelations about the place which come to the surface (literally) many years later.

The Underground Railroad focused on slavery and veered off in an unpredictable direction which saw it top the Amazon Book charts in its “Metaphysical and Visionary” lists. This book plays things more straightforwardly. In a way, I was pleased by this, because the author has such an important story to tell, but also I was a little disappointed that this does not soar in quite the same way as its predecessor with its imaginative elements.

It is well-written and tales of appalling prejudice still need telling. In airing these issues from the past to Trump’s America Colson Whitehead has written another book which will enhance his growing reputation as one of the US’s most important novelists.

Phil Ramage 4/5

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
Fleet 9780708899410 hbk Aug 2019