Day 6

Colson Whitehead is being called 'America's Storyteller', but does The Nickel Boys live up to the hype?

TIME magazine recently said that 'by mining the past, novelist Colson Whitehead takes readers into an uneasy present.' His latest novel, The Nickel Boys, is already being widely celebrated, but should you read it? Day 6 books columnist Becky Toyne weighs in.

The author's previous novel, The Underground Railroad, won both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award

Pulitzer Prize winner Colson Whitehead's new book, The Nickel Boys, explores U.S. history. (Penguin Random House, Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
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Colson Whitehead's latest book won't be released until next week, but The Nickel Boys already has effusive praise. 

Whitehead was on the cover of a recent TIME magazine edition titled America's Storyteller. The Washington Post said the book was in conversation with "James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison and especially Martin Luther King." 

And Joe Rubbo of the Australian website Readings wrote, "This can be a hard book to read, but it is absolutely necessary."

The book follows a black teenager named Elwood Curtis in 1960s Tallahassee, Fla. The teen is sent on a flimsy charge to the Nickel Academy, a reform school. Nickel Academy is notorious for the abuse — physical, sexual and emotional — it heaps on its charges. 

Curtis's life falls apart around him, and the story spans his time at the school up to the present day when a secret graveyard is discovered on the school grounds. 

Day 6 books columnist Becky Toyne told host Brent Bambury that despite the grim subject matter, the book strikes a balance between efficient prose and vivid storytelling.

"There is nothing gratuitous. It's not lingered over. The violence is very fast and furious and then gone in a way that is very shocking to you, and really stays with you," said Toyne. 

Fiction with a strong grasp of history

Nickel Academy is fictional, but it's based on a Florida school that closed in 2011. 

"So this is a story about America's past. It's a story about a chapter in America's past that is not yet concluded," said Toyne.

As soon as I read the cover flap to see what the book was about, I thought, 'Well, this could also be a book about Canadian residential school.'- Becky Toyne

The book's themes centre on how success and potential can be stripped away without the perpretrators demonstrating direct malice. While Curtis encounters vile people, the book goes beyond individuals to examine a larger system.

"It's a story about wickedness and corruption and complicity, and about a system that removes opportunity from an entire portion of the population based on circumstances that are completely beyond their control," said Toyne.

One of the reasons behind the book's early excitement is Whitehead's last book, The Underground Railroad, was a bestseller and Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction, among other literary awards. That book looked at American history through the lens of a slave, trying to escape her master's pursuit.

Author Colson Whitehead attends the 2017 Time 100 Gala. (Jemal Countess/Getty Images for TIME)

Toyne noted that while Whitehead is explicitly commenting on the United States' past and present in books, The Nickel Boys reminded her of a particularly Canadian dark history. 

"As soon as I read the cover flap to see what the book was about, I thought, 'Well, this could also be a book about Canadian residential school,'" said Toyne.

"It would be a companion to a novel like Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese for example."

So should you read it?

Unequivocally, Toyne says yes. She found few flaws in the book. The book's summary on the interior flap didn't even spoil the story — an occasional personal quibble.

The book is a slight departure from Whitehead's prior work, which tries to incorporate elements of myth and fantasy into historical stories. The Nickel Boys does none of that, and Toyne argued the book is better for it.

"This is just a straight story, and it serves the story so well for it to be written like that," said Toyne. 

She added, "He does a couple of really clever things with the narrative that I'm not going to talk about because I don't want to take away the enjoyment of anyone who still has to read the book."

If you'd like to find out what Toyne means, enter to win a copy of The Nickel Boys. Click here to email us, and tell us the name of Whitehead's first non-fiction book to enter. Please include your mailing address.


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