The fictional Nickel reform school is rampant with abuse, fraud, and hopelessness. Elwood is a good young guy, who wants to do the right thing, but one dumb luck moment lands him at Nickel reformatory. Elwood was on track to attend college, so this is a major interruption of his life plan.
Elwood meets a guy, Turner, at Nickel who has a more pragmatic approach to life and is a perfect balance to Elwood’s sunny optimism. It allows Colson to help the reader explore the choices one can make under difficult circumstances, not of one’s choosing. I’m so impressed with the delicate handling employed by Colson, it’s clear to me that this material in a less skilled writer’s hands could have been an angry book of terror. And that may be the necessary route at times, but that book is easier to write and harder to keep the reader engaged.
Colson keeps you engaged with the right amount of indignation and empathy. Kudos to Colson Whitehead, he has clearly established himself as one of America’s best novelists and this one will contend for awards, I’m certain of that.