As the Civil Rights movement begins to reach the black enclave of Frenchtown in segregated Tallahassee, Elwood Curtis takes the words of Dr. Martin Luther King to heart: He is “as good as anyone.” Abandoned by his parents, but kept on the straight and narrow by his grandmother, Elwood is a high school senior about to start classes at a local college. But for a black boy in the Jim Crow South of the early 1960s, one innocent mistake is enough to destroy the future. Elwood is sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy, whose mission statement says it provides “physical, intellectual and moral training” so the delinquent boys in their charge can become “honorable and honest men.”
In reality, the Nickel Academy is a grotesque chamber of horrors. Stunned to find himself in such a vicious environment, Elwood tries to hold onto Dr. King’s ringing assertion “Throw us in jail and we will still love you.” His friend Turner thinks Elwood is worse than naive, that the world is crooked, and that the only way to survive is to scheme and avoid trouble.
The tension between Elwood’s ideals and Turner’s skepticism leads to a decision with repercussions that will echo down the decades. Formed in the crucible of the evils Jim Crow wrought, the boys’ fates will be determined by what they endured at the Nickel Academy.
The book is based on the real story of a reform school in Florida that operated for one hundred and eleven years and warped the lives of thousands of children.
Throw us in jail, and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities after midnight hours, and drag us out onto some wayside road, and beat us and leave us half-dead, and we will still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom.“
I’ve had my eye on this book for a long time, but I hesitated to pick it up because I had never read anything by Whitehead. I had heard reviews about The Underground Railroad on YouTube that weren’t great. Honestly, I still don’t feel the need to pick up that specific book. This one drew me in because of the topic. I researched it before I jumped into the novel. If you don’t want to read a novel about it, please go read a few articles about the topic. This place was open for over 100 years. Think about how many kids were abused and traumatized. It’s awful, and if any of that is triggering to you, then maybe don’t pick this one up.
If you think that this is going to have a happy ending, you are wrong. It’s heartbreaking all the way through. One of the main issues I had with this book was not feeling attached to the characters. I felt bad for them, obviously, but they all fell very flat. Not sure if that’s how it was supposed to be, but I really wanted to know Elwood. I wonder what the novel would be like if it was just a bit longer.
That doesn’t mean that Whitehead isn’t a phenomenal writer. I was sucked in from the first line: “Even in death the boys were trouble.”
He also had a way of hinting to the reader that something more is going on behind the scenes. When Elwood arrives at Nickel, he mentions that it doesn’t seem too bad. As time goes on, however, he notices that boys have bruises and chunks taken out of their ears, etc. It all happens so fast, though. So don’t blink when you read this.
It wasn’t the perfect book, but it does what it’s supposed to. I find that it might be too short to convey the full story. Other than that and the flat characters, this is worth a read.
If you enjoyed this, then give it a like and follow my blog. Be respectful and happy reading!