The Nickel Boys

The Nickel Boys

A Novel

Book - 2019
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As the Civil Rights movement begins to reach the black enclave of Frenchtown in segregated Tallahassee, Elwood Curtis takes the words of Dr. Martin Luther King to heart: He is "as good as anyone." 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 the 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 their 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." 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 to a decision whose repercussions will echo down the decades. Formed in the crucible of the evils Jim Crow wrought, the boys' fates will be determined by what they endured at the Nickel Academy.
Publisher: New York : Doubleday, [2019]
Edition: First edition
Copyright Date: ©2019
ISBN: 9780385537070
Branch Call Number: Fiction Whi
Characteristics: 213 pages ; 22 cm


From Library Staff

Barack Obama's Facebook Page August 14, 2019 "The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead is a necessary read, detailing the way Jim Crow and mass incarceration tore apart lives and wrought consequences that ripple into today"

From the critics

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Jul 31, 2020

I liked this book. This is the first time I've ever commented publicly on a book, but The Nickel Boys is just that good. There's a truth in this novel that just so sobering, and I'm glad it won the Pulitzer Prize this year, I do believe it deserved it. It's really brutal though, so it's good to know what you're getting into before reading the book.

Jul 20, 2020

The Dozier School for Boys was a reform school in Marianna, Florida that operated for 111 years until a failed inspection in 2009 led to investigations that uncovered a history of abuse, beatings, rape, torture, and murder. It was closed permanently in 2011. Three years later, news of the school made its way to Colson Whitehead, and his 2019 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Nickel Boys,” is inspired by the real-life tragedy.

Primarily set at fictitious Nickel Academy in Jim Crow-era Florida and interspersed with accounts in contemporaneous New York City, the story focuses on two boys who befriend each other after arriving at Nickel: Elwood, a studious African American and ardent fan of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who possesses a strong sense of justice, and Turner, who has a less optimistic view of the world. Existence at the school — this is not a life these youths have been given — is as you might imagine: grim, harrowing, volatile, unpredictable, erratic, and, above all, dangerous. Elwood does his best to serve his time without incident but is severely beaten twice, once for trying to help another boy being attacked by sexual predators and again for writing a letter complaining of poor conditions. After Turner overhears that the administration plans to kill Elwood, the two attempt an escape. The story ends with an unexpected twist but to say anything more would reveal too much.

This is a heavy book, but it never reads heavy. It is utter realism, nothing fanciful, nothing extraneous. It is stark and bleak, powerful and painful, but also beautiful and hopeful. It is graphic without being gratuitous and yet, at times, it is disturbingly vague. It is the unknown and the unknowable that is ultimately the most terrifying, as much to the reader as to the Nickel boys. It never pulls its punches, never flinches, never blinks, never looks away from the hard and bitter truth of our collective past and the role racism has and continues to play in America. Intentionally or not, “The Nickel Boys” makes a damning case that we are unable — or, more precisely, unwilling — to see goodness, justice, mercy, equality, and love triumph over fear, prejudice, subjugation, discrimination, and hate. To quote Dr. King, “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but bends toward justice.”

Elwood believed that to be true, Turner less so. More than perhaps at any time since the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s, positive change feels possible — though not inevitable. The road is long. Meaningful and lasting reform will not come easily. Untiring pressure, persistence, and patience (not our strong suit) will be required. I can only hope the momentum behind the current Black Lives Matter movement finds firm footing, swells and strengthens, permeates the masses, and grows deep roots. Not until what happens to the least of us matters to the rest of us can anything of import be accomplished. Colson Whitehead’s “The Nickel Boys” plays a persuasive role in pushing that conversation forward.

Jul 09, 2020

Ok book. Based on a terrible situation.

Jul 04, 2020

The Nickel Boys is a brutally honest look at the cruelty that we are able to inflict upon one another. At times, this is a difficult and bleak read, make no mistake about it. Part of the difficultly in reading it results from the self reflection it elicits. In a sense, its a very modern look at a historical time period. Much like another book I read this year, Washington Black, this book examines how we think/talk about race in the present day but does so in a historical setting. For me, it’s most clear in how the character of Jamie bounces between the white and black campus of the school and in the school sports event in the middle of the book.

The book tells the story of Elwood and Turner. Two boys living at Nickel Academy (Whitehead's version of the Dozier School) in Florida. There are plenty of interviews where Whitehead talks about what lead to him writing this book, so I won't go into more detail here. Elwood is an optimist who has started to grow up during the Civil Rights movement, and Turner is a pessimist who lived his life growing up in the "system" of Nickel Academy. The book at its core is the tension between these two viewpoints of life, and asks whether an optimist thrown in this brutal reality can survive with their worldview intact. I'd argue that Whitehead says he can, but that's my interpretation.

Reread: I'll eventually reread The Nickel Boys. Whitehead's writing flows very well and the book never feels laborious. I think this book would benefit from multiple readings, evenly spaced apart to allow the reader to revisit its message at another time in their life.

Read more from the Author: Absolutely! I already have a copy of The Underground Railroad queued up to be read. After reading that, I want to read some of his older stuff as well. His writing is very clean, clear, and enjoyable to read, and I can't wait to read what he does with other subjects.

Recommend: Absolutely. This was a great read, and one worthy of reading and breaking down. As I said above, his story presents an important message about how we treat each other and it is something everyone ought to read. This was a difficult, and at times brutal, book. However, Whitehead really has a larger message about how we treat one another that he's telling through the violence and brutality which is a very important message to learn. So for that alone I'd like to reread it to unpack more of his message.

Final Thoughts: The book really shows the cruelty that we have within us to inflict upon each other, but sends a hopeful message that within that reality we have ability to persevere, overcome, and hopefully affect the world in a positive way.

Jun 09, 2020

This book was recommended by a good friend and initially I had my doubts about it. Having grown up near a 'reform' school I thought this would bring back too much I preferred remained forgotten. But I have been following the news articles about the 'school' in FL. So
I am glad I gave this book a chance. Broken into three sections it is engrossing from the very beginning. The main character surviving and prospering as he does - then coming back to bear witness is (perhaps) too wishful. In spite of this 'the Nickel Boys' is a great story.

May 01, 2020

This book was recommended to me by a fellow book lover and I am glad for it. Unfortunately, I have yet to read Colson Whitehead’s more famous book, The Underground Railroad. I will get there eventually!

This is a coming of age story that sheds light on an institution that has been forgotten within the frameworks of contemporary history and the various formal and informal structures formed in the aftermath of slavery. Within this book, we learn of the reformatory schools that were popular starting in the late 19th century and well into the 20th and even 21st centuries. These schools are where troubled boys were sent instead of prison. However, even within the confines of a reformatory school, segregation was WIDE and APPARENT.

Elwood, our main character, comes of age amidst the civil rights movement and holds the words of Martin Luther King Jr., constantly on his mind. Mulling them over and over, trying to understand, embody, and enact his statements. Elwood spends his early life staying out of trouble, guided by his maternal grandmother who has no one left but him. Elwood has dreams of going to college, with even a college fund started to enable those dreams. However, he is inevitably stripped of all his rights, as many before him and after him will be. And with those college funds now being used for his defense. Elwood is faced with the all too real reality that the rights he deserves will never be given freely. He fights between playing the game to get out alive or doing what he knows to be right.

This is a beautiful, compelling story. It was incredibly well-written, with meaningful themes embedded throughout the book. I enjoyed the seemingly circular motion of the story that was enabled by having two perspectives.

"The world continued to instruct: Do not love for they will disappear, do not trust for you will be betrayed, do not stand up for you will be swatted down. Still he heard those higher imperatives: Love and that love will be returned, trust in the righteous path and it will lead you to deliverance, fight and things will change."  -- Colson Whitehead

Mar 17, 2020

A great American novel

Feb 18, 2020

Not a bad read, and reminded me a little bit of the movie "Sleepers" with Kevin Bacon. Some chapters introduced new characters that you never heard of and eventually 5-6 pages later you realized Elwood was the "he" who was interacting with these new characters. The ending was surprising but a little disappointing for me.

Feb 13, 2020

Really impressed and moved by this novel. Amazed at the epic scale the author achieves within just 200 pages. Very affecting portrayal of this hideous place's effects on the boys during their time there, and for the rest of their lives. The story took a turn that I did not foresee, creating a conclusion that was at once surprising, fitting, and deeply emotional.

Feb 07, 2020

Colson Whitehead's "The Underground Railroad" seemingly won ever award possible, and, I think, will endure as one of the great novels of our time. It was an ambitious, compelling, and necessary book. So how you follow it up? "The Nickel Boys" is a shorter, more focused novel, but it's just as powerful. Elwood Curtis, growing up in Florida, is doing everything right: he works hard, he stays out of trouble, he takes the words of Dr. King to heart, he's bound for college. And then something goes horribly wrong, and he finds himself in a brutal, racist reform school, where he struggles to survive. It can hard to read knowing that, even though it's fiction, it's based on facts. It's another great novel from Whitehead that deals with racism and injustice head on and generates enormous empathy for his characters. I can't recommend this book highly enough.

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Dec 30, 2019

The novel opens in the early 1960s. Elwood Curtis in an African-American boy growing up in Tallahassee, Florida. He is being raised by his grandmother since his parents moved to another state when Elwood was six years old. Elwood is cognizant of racial tensions and divisions in America, and he becomes even more aware of them after his grandmother buys him a record of Martin Luther King speeches. Elwood begins attending civil rights protests in his teenage years. Elwood is studious and hard-working, and he aspires to attend college. One day, when Elwood is about sixteen years old, he is unjustly targeted by a white police officer. The officer falsely charges Elwood with stealing a car. Elwood is convicted and sentenced to attend Nickel Reformatory School for a year. Nickel is an all-boys reform school that is segregated by race.

After Elwood arrives at the school, he is dismayed to see that the class offerings are virtually nonexistent. The students are forced to spend most of their time performing unpaid labor that generates profit for the school and the state. Elwood also soon learns that the staff often beat students, which is illegal, and they sometimes even kill students. Early in Elwood’s time at Nickel, the staff beat Elwood quite severely after he tries to protect a student who is being bullied. Elwood befriends another black student there, who is named Jack Turner (but he is simply called Turner by other people.) Elwood tries to shorten his time at Nickel by being docile and subservient, but the staff seem to administer punishments almost at random.

One day, the school holds its annual boxing match, in which a black student must box against a white student. This year, black boxer is a boy named Griff, who is strong, unintelligent, and who often bullies others. The school superintendent, Maynard Spencer, privately tells Griff to lose the match on purpose. However, Griff wins the match when he accidentally knocks out the other boxer. The black students are excited by Griff’s victory. At the order of Superintendent Spencer, some of the staff members take Griff behind the school and kill him. One day, when state inspectors arrive at Nickel, Elwood writes a report of what he has witnessed and experienced at Nickel. Turner helps Elwood covertly give the report to the state inspectors. However, the state takes no action against the school.

In retaliation for the report, Spencer and the school staff plan to kill Elwood. Elwood and Turner decide to try to escape together. Turner successfully escapes, but staff members catch up with Elwood and shoot him to death. Turner adopts Elwood’s name as a way of honoring him. Turner eventually moves to New York City and establishes a moving company there. He does not talk about his time at Nickel, and he attempts to simply repress those memories. However, he suffers persistent emotional trauma. Eventually, in the 2010s, archaeologists discover human remains on the grounds of the now defunct Nickel school. The remains have evidential marks of the violence suffered by the students. As the truth about Nickel begins to become public, Turner decides to finally speak publicly about the things he experienced while at Nickel.


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ArapahoeAnnaL Sep 19, 2019

The more routine his days, the more unruly his nights. He woke after midnight, when the dormitory was dead, starting at imagined sounds -- footsteps at the threshold, leather slapping the ceiling. He squinted at the darkness--nothing. Then he was up for hours, in a spell, agitated by rickety thoughts and weakened by an ebbing of the spirit....In keeping his head down in his careful navigation so that he made it to lights-out without mishap, he fooled himself that he had prevailed. That he had outwitted Nickel because he got along and kept out of trouble. In fact he had been ruined. He was like one of those Negroes Dr. King spoke of in his letter from jail, so complacent and sleepy after years of oppression that they had adjusted to it and learned to sleep in it as their only bed. pg. 156


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