Colson Whitehead has won his second Pulitzer Prize for The Nickel Boys. His previous novel, The Underground Railroad, was a hard act to follow, but this wonderous and short work manages it with aplomb.
Fiction always has a potential power, beyond taking us away from our day to day, it can to open our eyes, pull us in to different realities and help us to understand each other. Within The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys Colson Whitehead has used his pen (or keyboard) to tell stories that need to be told. We hear of these stories on the news and we nod, acknowledge and forget but through these novels we are brought inside, into the events, the lives, the people’s minds, where it can become understood and cared about. The Nickel Boys is based on shocking realities that should be known, for those who went through that shameful system and to make sure that it won’t happen again. It is a fine example of the power fiction can have!
Now don’t let this put you off! This book is far more than a power to reveal a terrible system. Colson Whitehead is not desperately trying to create change or feed you factual information, no, this is in itself a beautiful and gripping novel.
We meet Elwood Curtis, an honest, well behaved boy raised by his grandmother in 1960s Florida. Elwood’s focus is on education and the words Dr.King, he dreams of going to college and he is moving in the right direction despite the difficulties and prejudices. Until, all of a sudden, he is in the wrong place at the wrong time, and for that, he is being sent to the Nickle Academy, a correctional school for boys that flies under the radar and is run by their own depraved corrupt rules. If you know the Roald Dahl story Matilda, imagine a school run only by much more terrible Trunchbull types and where the choky is a much more horrible place to be sent! But really this book deserves no comparisons. In Nickle, Elwood meets Turner a boy who knows the system better and who has a far less positive view of the world, their friendship is our grasp on hope.
Now, there are writers who create wonderful plots and stories and there are writers who use words masterfully, but the writers who can do both are few and far between and Colson Whitehead is one of them. The Nickel Boys fully deserves the Pulitzer prize, which was his second win, making Colson Whitehead only the fourth writer ever to achieve this, along with Booth Tarkington, William Faulkner and John Updike. It is easy to imagine his books in the classic sections of future generations, and being studied in schools and universities. It feels like a classic before his time has even passed.
Colson Whitehead has a special way with words, he strikes a perfect balance between evocative, well-chosen words and his moving story. They fit perfectly together. It is subtle, the words never take you away from the story but if you pull yourself away and focus on a sentence you will see the skilful descriptions and use of vocabulary, for example; descriptive verbs instead of tons of adjectives. This is not always obvious and never overpowering, most sentences can seem plain but each one feels thoughtful, important and needed for the story. There are so many examples to choose from of those perfectly composed sentences but is feels wrong to take them out of the context of the story as when you are reading you will be lost within the world of Elwood Curtis and may not notice, but we will leave you with the first line.
“Even in Death the boys were trouble”