Whitehead, popular for his previous works The Underground Railroad, winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and Sag Harbor, set here on the East End, turns his attention to a true story of the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, a Jim Crow-era Florida state-funded segregated reform school in his newest novel.
He was in the midst of writing a Harlem-set mystery novel when he first heard the story of the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in 2014 and decided to shelve the project in favor of penning The Nickel Boys. In it, he presents a fictionalized retelling of the grim stories that were spread about the reform school—stories where juveniles were subjected to physical, mental and sexual abuse throughout the school’s 111-year history. The book follows the story of Elwood Curtis, an industrious, straight-laced black teenager who idolizes the words of Martin Luther King Jr., who is arrested and sent to the Nickel Academy for hitchhiking in what turns out to be a stolen car on his way to seek higher education at a nearby segregated college.
Thus far, critics have praised the novel and the author for shining a light on the past and the ugly American truth of the Dozier School, an institution where minors were being abused and in some cases even killed. It’s being hailed for its resonance to stories of black Americans being mercilessly denied legal justice. NPR called the The Nickel Boys “a great American novel” and Barnes and Nobles has announced it as their July 2019 National Book Club Selection.
Meet Colson Whitehead at a reading of his powerful, new novel at the Unitarian Meetinghouse (977 Bridgehampton-Sag Harbor Turnpike, Bridgehampton) on August 1 at 6 p.m. Visit canios.wordpress.com for more info.