A Homecoming for Colson Whitehead

Pictured Above: Colson Whitehead | Madeline Whitehead photo

Author Colson Whitehead, who summered in Sag Harbor growing up and authored the 2009 fictionalized coming-of-age novel “Sag Harbor,” is coming back to his childhood stomping ground this month touring his new novel, “The Nickel Boys.”

Mr. Whitehead, who won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for his 2016 New York Times bestseller “The Underground Railroad,” delves into another strand of American history in his new novel, through the story of two boys sentenced to a hellish reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida.

Mr. Whitehead will be speaking at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Fork’s meetinghouse at 977 Bridgehampton-Sag Harbor Turnpike on Thursday, Aug. 1 at 6 p.m. in a program sponsored by Canio’s Cultural Café.

Copies of “The Nickel Boys” will be available for sale at the event and beforehand at Canio’s Books at 290 Main Street in Sag Harbor. Donations to Canio’s Cultural Café and the UUCSF will be accepted at the event. Canio’s Books is accepting reservations for the talk on their Facebook page at facebook.com/caniosbooks.

“The Nickel Boys” tells the story of young Elwood Curtis, who takes the words of Dr. Martin Luther King to heart when the Civil Rights movement begins to reach the black enclave of Frenchtown in segregated Tallahassee.

Abandoned by his parents, but kept on the straight and narrow by his grandmother, Elwood is about to enroll in the local black college. But for a black boy in the Jim Crow South of the early 1960s, one innocent mistake is enough to destroy his 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 its charge can become “honorable and honest men.”

In reality, the Nickel Academy is a grotesque chamber of horrors, where the sadistic staff beats and sexually abuses the students, corrupt officials and locals steal food and supplies, and any boy who resists is likely to disappear “out back.” 

The novel is based on the real story of a reform school in Florida that operated for 111 years and warped the lives of thousands of children,

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 them to a decision that has repercussions that echo down through the decades. Formed in the crucible of the evils of segregation, the boys’ fates will be determined by what they endured at the Nickel Academy.

“If you look at today’s social unrest and division and racial discord, we haven’t gone that far from the Jim Crow days,” Mr. Whitehead told the New York Times in an interview this July concurrent with the release of “The Nickel Boys.” “We can delude ourselves that we’re making a lot of progress in terms of race, in terms of social equality, but then of course there are always things that remind you how far we have not come.”

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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