Historical Fiction You Need to Read: The Nickel Boys

Recently, I had a conversation with someone a generation older than me about a non-fiction book they were reading (I forget which one… It doesn’t matter for my point here, except that I want to read it), and at least three times the person said, “They just never taught us that side of history when I was in school.”

That conversation was on my mind the entire time I was reading The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead.

Since my 11th grade AP History course (shout out to Ms. Bailey!), when I first read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, I’ve been continuously discovering the ways in which history has been told “by the conquerors”, as people say. Oppressors might be a more appropriate word, but the point remains the same: some histories are routinely, institutionally ignored.

But for me, no offense to AP History, it’s really been my love for fiction (especially historical fiction) that has illuminated the realities of who’s history gets told. And that brings me, at last, to the book at hand.

The Nickel Boys is a book based on true, horrifying events they don’t tell you about in grade school; a kind of historical fiction that simultaneously captivates and enrages. It follows one boy’s experience in a segregated school for boys’ reform, and for me, it provided yet another example of how some history is intentionally perpetuated while others are swept under the rug.

And yet, despite how infuriating this untold history is, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t enthralled cover to cover. I could hardly put this story down, as much as I wanted it (or anything like it) to have never happened. That is, The Nickel Boys is incredibly powerful not only for the historical truths that it reveals, but also for Whitehead’s capacity for storytelling. He invigorates this story with relatable characters and moving friendships, with beautiful and skillful prose.

It’s on ever best-seller list for a reason. It won a Pullitzer Prize for a reason. It’s incredible – quite simply, a must read.

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