In an essay on Harriet Beecher Stowe and her remarkable novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Edmund Wilson wrote of how it arrives at the lowest circle of Hell: “the nightmare plantation of Simon Legree, a prison and place of torture, with its Negroes set to flog other Negroes and its tensions of venomous hatred…” Now Colson Whitehead, in this riveting novel, takes us, with laconic economy, to a place of comparable horror, the Nickel Reform School in Florida.
The main part of the novel is set in the early Sixties. The hero is an intelligent, self-educated and idealistic boy called Elwood Curtis, a disciple of Martin Luther King. There is an introductory chapter set more than 40 years later, long after the Nickel School has been closed and development of the site has been stalled by the discovery of a secret graveyard. In this chapter we are told that “in New York City there lived a Nickel boy who went by the name of Elwood Curtis” who, from time to time, would do a web search on the old reform school. Later, as the narrative, cleverly and convincingly moves back and forward in time, we learn that he has become a successful businessman.
Back to the Sixties. Elwood, preparing for college, is by mischance arrested and sent to the Nickel School. At first he thinks it may not be too bad. It’s a school, not a prison, and the grounds are pleasant. However, he soon learns it is a place of brutality and terror, of cruelty and perversion. There are white boys there as well as black ones, but even here segregation is the rule, and, if the white boys are treated badly, the black ones have it worse, much worse. Some simply disappear and are never heard of again. There is of course no investigation. Who cares? For a minor misdemeanour, merely to teach him his place, Elwood is taken to the punishment centre and flogged so viciously that he has to spend days lying on his stomach in what passes for the sick-bay. He has one friend, a wide-boy called Turner who teaches him that the way to survive is to keep your head down. But Elwood, still believing in virtue and the teaching of Dr King, keeps a record of the crimes committed, trusting that justice will eventually prevail.
Whitehead is a master of the novelist’s craft, manipulating the time-switches deftly. The depiction of the nightmare school is all the more effective for the restraint with which he writes. This is how it was: let the facts speak for themselves. His indictment of American racism is compelling. A hundred years after the Civil War and Emancipation, the stain of the sin of slavery isn’t near to being wiped out. Just as Uncle Tom in Stowe’s novel displays the Christian virtues despite the persecution he suffers, so Whitehead’s young Elwood holds to the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the teaching of Martin Luther King in a vicious and unjust society where those principles seem a mockery
and that teaching is still denied by the men who have power over the weak.
The narrative is well-structured. There is a twist in the tale which makes sense because it satisfyingly clears up what had seemed a surprising and perhaps disappointing development. But Whitehead is fair to the reader. The surprise has been prepared for, a hint of it offered early.
I suppose that, given the way things are or seem to be in Trump’s America, this novel is as timely as Uncle Tom’s Cabin was. But, though its subject is America and the perversion of the American Dream into nightmare, it is not only about that. There are comparable horrors elsewhere, and Whitehead is writing about man’s capacity for cruelty and the denial of justice. Yet it would be wrong to read it as a cry of despair. As Elwood’s friend Turner comes at last to recognise: “it was not enough to survive, you have to live”. That had been Elwood’s message, the message of a quiet boy who held to the hope which was almost a conviction that in the end truth, goodness, love and justice will prevail.
The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead, Fleet, 213pp, £16.99. Colson Whitehead is appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 25 August