Tales of brutality and survival

Pulitzer Prize–winning author Colson Whitehead delved into the murderous history of Florida reform school in reading co-sponsored by Bookshop Santa Cruz and The Humanities Institute

Colson Whitehead enthralled the capacity crowd as he read from his new book, Nickel Boys, and spoke of the research that informed the novel.  Photo by Crystal Birns.

Nickel Boys, the new novel by the Pulitzer Prize–winning author Colson Whitehead, is based on the horrific true story of the Arthur G. Dozier School, which had a long and disturbing track record of abuse, unexplained deaths, safety violations, and sexual assaults.

To build his story, Whitehead drew from—and credited—newspaper reporters as well as the work of former inmates who have written about their experiences at Dozier. But Whitehead, during his riveting presentation last week at Peace United Church in Santa Cruz, admitted that he just couldn't bring himself to tour the ruins of the shut-down reform school as part of his research. The rage and dread were too much for him.

“I was going to go down there and I kept putting it off,” Whitehead told the capacity crowd at the reading, which was presented by Bookshop Santa Cruz and The Humanities Institute at UC Santa Cruz. “When I thought about going down there, my heart got heavy, and I got depressed. I  could not fly to Florida.”

He got the idea for Nickel Boys from a series of shocking newspaper reports about the school in the Florida Panhandle, which opened on New Year's Day in 1900, on the premise that it would offer education, practical skills, and rehabilitation for troubled youth as an alternative to locking them up as adult criminals. 

In reality, the school was a botched effort. From the beginning, it was negligent and grossly mismanaged, Whitehead said. In 1903, investigators found that children as young as 6 had been shackled in solitary confinement. In 1914, a fire raced through the property, killing eight boys and two men. About 80 boys are known to have died at the school.

“Over the years there were other investigations and talks of reform, and nothing happened,” Whitehead said. “Nothing really changed. They disassembled the sweat boxes where kids were baked in iron boxes in the sun. They stopped leasing kids to local businesses because sometimes they ended up dead. But always the problems returned.”

Major change did not take place until 2011, when newspaper reports put a lot of pressure on Dozier, Whitehead said. 

“Finally stories of sexual abuse, torture, and even murder got the place closed down,” he said.

Survivors of the school—some of them in their 70s—talk about the ways the school has warped their lives. Some of them, to this day, are frightened of the dark. 

The audience gasped when Whitehead mentioned the report that first drew him into the world of Dozier: “In 2014 they were trying to sell the property and a team of archaeologists from the University of South Florida found 55 unmarked graves. Some had blunt trauma to their skulls.” 

Nickel Boys tells the story of the fictional Nickel school through the friendship and conflicting perspectives of the two principal characters, the idealistic, studious Elwood, a great admirer of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the more cynical Turner. 

Elwood ends up in Nickel because he is hitchhiking on a road one day, and catches a ride with the driver of a stolen car who gets pulled over by a racist policeman. Deemed guilty by association, Elwood is given no chance to clear his name. The belief systems that define his life—“people are good, and things will turn out OK if I do the right thing”—face a sustained and brutal test. 

While most of the Dozier youth never got the justice they deserved, there is a kind of justice in Nickel Boys’ success. An instant bestseller, Nickel Boys also wound up at the top of former President Barack Obama’s summer reading list, and was recently listed as a contender for the National Book Award.

Whitehead’s book offers a broader commentary “on any place where there is a culture of impunity, where people can get away with stuff, where no one is held accountable.” He said this principle applies to many other places and circumstances, from a notorious home for unwed mothers in Ireland to migrant camps in Texas. 

In his introduction to Whitehead’s talk, UC Santa Cruz Humanities Dean and Distinguished Professor of History Tyler Stovall noted the strong continuity between Nickel Boys and Whitehead’s previous and best-selling novel to date, The Underground Railroad (2016), in which Whitehead tells the story of the flight of a woman named Cora from a plantation in Florida, while making use of an otherworldy series of subterranean tunnels—a literalized, physical version of the metaphorical “Underground Railroad.”

“If The Underground Railroad showed how one brave woman tried to escape slavery, The Nickel Boys showed how slavery caught back up in many ways with African American communities in the years of the Civil Rights movement,” Stovall said.