The Nickel Boys is the story of Elwood Curtis. It is the early 1960s and he is a fan of the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King Jr – it appeals to his innate sense of right and wrong and if he can just keep doing the right thing, everything will be fine.
It’s not. He, while trying to get to his college-level classes that he is taking whilst still in high school, hitches a ride with someone who’s just stolen a car. He gets sent to a reform school, Nickel in the book, but based on Florida’s Dozier School for Boys. Elwood becomes friends with Turner, a boy who has come back for his second time.
Their friendship is good and realistic and also a metaphor for how to live responsibly: do you always stand up for what is good and right (Elwood) or do you do what you have to to get by (Turner)? What is the better way to live? The book is not always clear.
It also brought home the precariousness of being Black in the South during and before the Civil Rights Movement, and not for the first time. If you’ve ever seen pictures of Emmett Till, you know how precarious life was for Black Southerners. But I mourned for Elwood and his intelligence and his promise, getting sent to a reform school where terrible things happen because he hitched a ride with the wrong person.
I read The Nickel Boys in one sitting, basically, getting up only to eat dinner. The prose is good and the story is tight. Highly, highly recommended.