Notes on The Nickel Boys

My father says he doesn’t believe in miracles. The thing is, he is one.

One of the favorite stories my grandma tells about my dad is that as soon as the Civil Rights Act passed, my father, a newly minted teenager, excitedly announced he was going to the movie theater to sit in the front row with the white folks. That’s exactly what he did and she cried during the entirety of his absence.

My father grew up in Jim Crow Louisiana and chose going to Vietnam over facing the threat of death in his own country. There is an immeasurable chasm between the context of the realities we grew up in and books like Nickel Boys bridge that gap.

Colson Whitehead is a true master of the craft. His writing is pointed and part of his brilliance is what he leaves unsaid. When Elwood, the story’s protagonist, innocently finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, Whitehead forgoes writing about the trial. The idea of justice and fact-finding is moot. Elwood is guilty by existence.

The Nickel Boys shows us the human capacity, Elwood its foil. Even in the end, it’s unclear which forces have won. At its core, this is a story about greed and the violent and cavalier human sacrifice of young bodies to preserve it. It will make your stomach churn and your head throb as this story from a not so distant past could still ring true today.

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