The subject matter of Colson Whitehead's The Nickel Boys, set in a 1960s boys' home, is horrifying and relevant

Writer Colson Whitehead. Picture: Basso Cannarsa/Opale

Writer Colson Whitehead. Picture: Basso Cannarsa/Opale

When I agreed to review this book, it was because I thought it would take me out of my comfort zone; always a good thing from time to time.

But after only a few lines I see I am very happily inside my comfort zone, of wonderful writing. The subject matter is terrible, but you can bear it when it is so well done.

It has a powerful simplicity, a collectedness, that recall Chekhov's advice: "When you want to move the heart, write more coldly. It is not indignant or angry, but it holds a vast well of sadness. There is a great deal of indignation, but it is the readers".

The Nickel boys have nothing to do with money. It's the name of a remand home for apparently recalcitrant boys. Elmore is a clever, diligent, serious boy who believes that behaving well will get him places.

And so it does; he is offered a place at Lincoln College, a school for black boys.

He has to hitchhike to get there, and is offered a lift with a white man in a Packard, shiny duco and smooth leather seats.

Of course it is stolen, and Elmore is blamed, even though he is not driving it and knows nothing about it.

From then on nothing goes right. Good behaviour is no guarantee of good treatment. Elmore is used to injustice.

Early on there is a scene at the hotel where his grandma works. A travelling salesman leaves behind a box of encyclopedias. The workers have a competition and Elmore wins.

He is thrilled, until he discovers that only the first volume has any entries, all the rest of the huge thick books are blank. Later he comes to think that the staff knew, they were part of the deception.

But the injustice at Nickel is not mild or manageable. It is systemic, vicious, relentless. Elmore is beaten so hard with a leather strap that he has to spend some weeks in hospital, with the doctor picking denim threads out of his wounds with tweezers.

This is better than being taken "out the back", where boys are tied to iron rings set in two trees, beaten and left to die.

The prologue to the novel is the excavation of the secret graveyard where these boys were buried, by university archaeology students in more or less contemporary times.

It was the 60s when these boys were so brutalised; JFK is mentioned, and the main novel starts with Elmore's grandma giving him a record of Martin Luther King's speeches.

He plays it all day, they are part of his consciousness, and for a time he believes that he can live by their message of love, until he realises it is not possible. Some of King's cadences inhabit Whitehead's prose.

The 60s were a time when black people believed segregation might come to an end. That the Jim Crow laws were a thing of the past.

I googled these, and understand why there was an article recently in some serious American publication claiming that in the minds of Trump and his supporters they had never gone away.

They are alive and well in Nickel. It claims to be rehabilitating boys, but it actually brutalises them. The white boys are much less than second class citizens, the black ones considerably below that.

We know about monstrous institutions: Salvation Army homes, orphanages with sadistic nuns, the Irish laundries enslaving pregnant young women the pseudonymous Benjamin Black writes about, and the sewers turned into secret graveyards for dead babies, but these do not involve the demonisation of black children. Our own Don Dale does.

And what about our offshore detention concentration camps? Full of brown people. We see our prime minister stand on stage in a vast auditorium beside a paedophile protector and say all we need is love.

The most egregious hypocrisy, since he does not have enough to release these innocent people as he could so easily do.

How good is Jesus? Not very, if we see him through the PM's eyes.

I mention these examples to show how Whitehead gives us to think about our transgressions where cruelty to others is concerned.

Elmore and his friend Turner plan their escape from Nickel, and cleverly. When we see him, in the contemporary times that end the novel, Elmore is a successful businessman, going to a good restaurant with his beloved wife.

But Whitehead has another twist yet. This happy ending is not what it appears. Well, it is and it isn't.

The boys in Nickel "had been denied even the simple pleasure of being ordinary. Hobbled and handicapped before the race even began, never figuring out how to be normal."

Whitehead's prose makes the outrage stay with us, it becomes part of our lived experience.

  • Marion Halligan is a Canberra author
This story In The Nickel Boys, real-life horrors woven into fiction keep outrage close to home first appeared on The Canberra Times.