Brown Baggers book group met virtually on Thursday, May 20 at noon to discuss The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. The group was introduced to Whitehead’s style, which bounces between realism and fantasy, through The Underground Railroad in February 2018. This latest novel was more grounded in reality, without speculative or fantastic elements. Yet one reader commented that by focusing on power and control, Whitehead was once again writing about slavery — “writing about slavery without writing about slavery.” Here we have more layers of racism to explore: caste and segregation, “subtle” racism, “gloves off” racism.
While Colson said he did not want to write another “heavy book” after The Underground Railroad, he could not avoid telling this story. It is based on an actual reform school that finally closed, after 100+ years of operation, in 2011. Readers will find brutality, reminiscent of The Underground Railroad, in The Nickel Boys — some laid bare on the page and difficult to swallow, and some left unsaid, but not unknown.
Elwood, Jack, and other Nickel Boys were not only subject to corporal punishment, hard labor, a poor education, and sexual assault, but also the psychological agony of living a false life at the Academy. The idea of falsehood was so compelling, readers remarked that it stood out as a central idea. There are people who are not able to live as their true selves. Instead they must preserve their true self (somewhere deep inside) through the ever-elusive protective goal of “fitting in with society.” A question that readers might ponder is this: what kind of life can be lived if that life requires deceit? Who in our own society are we burdening with the self-preserving obligation of deceit?
Elwood and Jack, described by Whitehead as, “two different parts of my personality,” are certainly nuanced, complicated further by their grim circumstances at the Academy, which some readers argue create allowances for behaviors/morality. Some characters, like Griff, sparked debate between members: was Griff a good guy with integrity and his own compass? A bully? Both? Some argued Griff was as good as he could be, given his situation. Others argued he had less self-control and was instead driven by mental limitations. We discussed who was a “good guy” and who was a “bad guy” and found it easier to pinpoint multiple villains: not only individual people, but also institutions.
Power was a central theme of our discussion. Members noted: if you give someone overwhelming power, there is going to be abuse. It’s inevitable, because we live in a racist, prejudiced society. We were honing in on the degradation of the human conscience; that little voice that says, “you’re better than them. Those people are throwaways. They deserve it.” Without accountability, regulation, and checks and balances, shocking slips ensue. Some of the abuses we found in The Nickel Boys reminded us of the treatment of the Appalachia people from Go Down The Mountain, as in both novels, a powerful group took away the inherent power of human dignity from another group.
One interesting thread of conversation we tackled as a group was how Whitehead treated women in this novel. The quick answer is that writers are sometimes penned in, given the subjects they choose to pursue — this was a reform school for boys, so the female experience wasn’t going to “fit.” But the more complicated question is: were women characterized “poorly” in this novel? For example, in a stereotypical fashion? As art teachers, wives, maids, and beneficiaries? As predictable, and predictably helpless, figures?
Last, the ending. While there is nothing otherworldly in this book, the end was enough to upend all of our readers. It will not be spoiled here, but perhaps the following reactions will entice others into picking up the novel:
Readers described the end of the novel as shocking. No one saw it coming, although one savvy reader did note one single clue that helped tip her off just the slightest. Another reader confessed reading the end three times, finally taking the third time around to really scour the pages at a snail’s pace, just to make sure her eyes were not deceiving her! We did have readers who understood the end logistically, but didn’t buy into the effect. For some, the way Whitehead chose to end the novel did not provide greater insight into the characters’ inner lives, plights, or quests, and instead they were left with doubts. In a way, this upended everything they’d previously known about a character, and forced them to rework a supposed understanding to accommodate a last minute puzzle. Others simply found it different, but in an interesting way. If you’ve read The Nickel Boys, what did you think about the ending? Will you share your thoughts in the comments below, without spoiling the ending for others?
The Brown Baggers will meet again virtually on Thursday, June 17 at noon to discuss Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org for details on how to participate from your computer or phone.
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