Colson Whitehead's latest novel opens in a dirt lot in Eleanor, Florida, where a developer waits impatiently for archaeology students to finish going over the empty land that they're ready to turn into an office park. The site was formerly a grazing pasture for a dairy farm run by "students" of a reform school, and everyone's ready to bury that part of the past. When one young excavator notices that the "dirt looks wrong," though, further exploration reveals scores of unmarked graves, halting the project and providing empirical evidence for the horrific tales that had been told about the school for decades.
Eleanor is, of course, the thinnest of veils fictionalizing Marianna, Florida, and the Nickel School is Whitehead's stand-in for the infamous Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys. Just as in the novel, the archaeologists' discovery leads to nationwide press coverage, so too was this the case in Marianna. And just as no one in the wider world outside the small town knew or cared about those abandoned bodies, one of the Nickel boys points out, "no one believed them until someone else said it."
The Dozier School is just another chapter in Florida's terrible history of racism. To date more than 80 (mostly black) bodies have been exhumed from the grounds of the school, where they were buried and left to rot without markers.
These are just the victims that were killed by the abuses that went on in the "reform school," which would more properly have been called an unregulated prison. Some of those who survived told their families; some even told lawmakers and reporters, but no one believed until the bodies began literally coming to light.
Whitehead writes, "The beating room had a bloody mattress and a naked pillow that was covered instead by the overlapping stains from all the mouths that had bit into it." After his first trip to the beating room, Elwood, the novel's protagonist, reads a pamphlet explaining that "the boys were called students, rather than inmates, to distinguish them from the violent offenders that populated prisons." Mentally, Elwood notes sourly, "all the violent offenders ... were on staff."
This is Whitehead's second book based on true events of African American experience in America, but in many ways The Nickel Boys is unlike 2016's The Underground Railroad. It's a taut read at just around 200 pages, unlike the temporal drifts of Underground Railroad. Railroad wove fantasy into the history of the slaves' escape route; Nickel Boys is a straightforward recrafting of the awful truth, barely dramatizing the facts of the matter. The "White House," the dairy farm, the University of South Florida archaeology students – all of it's taken straight from investigators' reports.
The outrage readers of The Nickel Boys will feel is unbuffered by any of the fantastical reimaginings of Underground Railroad. As well, the Dozier school was only closed in 2011, leaving no conscience-salving fig leaf of historical distance for readers.
If you are distressed by the events of the novel, it asks rhetorically, were you equally distressed by the news? And what did you do about it? It's a question that flays to the bone, in a novel unsparing in its insistence that we acknowledge our complicity.