The Nickel Boys
By Colson Whitehead
Why this book?
“The historian will tell you what happened. The novelist will tell you what it felt like.” I’ve always found these words by E.L. Doctorow a compelling argument for the unique power of fiction to enliven the past. Yet when thinking about the lives of people of color, you can’t count on everyone knowing the history much less caring about what it felt like for them to live it. Fortunately, we’re living in a golden age of historical fiction, a time when some of the most imaginative and intellectually challenging books are reimagining stories that have been lost—or that have never been told—about people and communities of color.
Colson Whitehead’s latest novel is a powerful example of this kind of fiction. In 2016 Whitehead came across a news story about some archaeology students trying to identify the remains of young men who had been tortured, raped, and mutilated, then buried in a secret graveyard, at a state-run reform school for boys in Florida. This novel itself is an excavation—an excavation of truth from history through the imagination. Taut and riveting, it pinned me in place and didn’t let me go until the last page.
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