Because things seem now, on the surface, better than they used to be does not mean things are good. In fact, progress has a way of becoming a wonderful hiding place for backwardness.
"It's not like the old days," Elwood Curtis protests from a bed in Nickel Academy's infirmary, his wounds from a beating still tacky and raw. "We can stand up for ourselves."
It's the mid-60s. Outside of this juvenile reformatory, change is happening. Protests against segregation and Jim Crow are leading to real change. There's a bit of budge, a tangible give. A better, fairer world could be found in the recorded speeches of Dr King that Elwood has glutted himself on, was alive in the protests the underage go-getter snuck into. Elwood was a participant in that change, headed for a brighter future. But, after being in the wrong place at the wrong time, he's flung backwards. Here, at Nickel Academy, it's still like the old days.
Colson Whitehead opens his follow up to The Underground Railroad with the contemporary exhumation of the Nickel campus. The movement of the official cemetery reveals an off-the-books burial grounds. Though there was nothing secret about this secret, it comes as a shock. "Plenty of boys had talked of the secret graveyard before, but as it had ever been with Nickel, no one believed them until someone else said it." As we move back into the past, meeting Elwood, his sole ally Turner, and all the other black students/inmates of Nickel, each one has the possibility of being one of those either official or unofficial casualties.
Like the asterisk marking inevitable doom in Kurt Vonnegut's Galápagos, opening his book with brutalized remains, Whitehead marks every boy he introduces. From the beginning, we know nothing will end well. Moreover, reading the book in 2019--a time when a section of America vocally yearns for "the old days"--we know that the better world Elwood hoped for heading into Nickel, will stay trapped between a shuffle of steps forward and steps back. "You can change the law," says the book's narrator, "but you can't change people and how they treat each other."
Based on the real life horrors of the state-run Dozier School for Boys in Florida, where graves are still being discovered, The Nickel Boys arrives as a reminder that the past does not resolve or erased. While the surface of things might change, what's buried beneath doesn't disappear. It only decomposes and then ossifies.