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Published September 16, 2020

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The Nickel Boys
The Nickel Boys
by Colson Whitehead

Paperback (30 Jun 2020), 224 pages.
Publisher: Anchor Books
ISBN-13: 9780345804341

In this bravura follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize, and National Book Award-winning #1 New York Times bestseller The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead brilliantly dramatizes another strand of American history through the story of two boys sentenced to a hellish reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida.

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.

Based on the real story of a reform school in Florida that operated for one hundred and eleven years and warped the lives of thousands of children, The Nickel Boys is a devastating, driven narrative that showcases a great American novelist writing at the height of his powers.

The Nickel Boys

Elwood received the best gift of his life on Christmas Day 1962, even if the ideas it put it in his head were his undoing. Martin Luther King At Zion Hill was the only album he owned and it never left the turntable. His grandmother Hattie had a few gospel records, which she only played when the world discovered a new mean way to work on her, and Elwood wasn't allowed to listen to the Motown groups or popular songs like that on account of their licentious nature. The rest of his presents that year were clothes – a new red sweater, socks – and he certainly wore those out, but nothing endured such good and constant use as the record. Every scratch and pop it gathered over the months was a mark of his enlightenment, tracking each time he entered into a new understanding of the Reverend's words. The crackle of truth.

They didn't have a TV set but Dr. King's speeches were such a vivid chronicle -- containing all that the Negro had been and all that he would be -- that the record was almost as good as television. Maybe even better, grander, like the towering screen at the Davis Drive-In, which he'd been to twice. Elwood saw it all: Africans persecuted by the white sin of slavery, Negroes humiliated and kept low by segregation, and that luminous image to come, when all those places closed to his race were opened.

The speeches had been recorded all over, Detroit and Charlotte and Montgomery, connecting Elwood to the rights struggle across the country. One speech even made him feel like a member of the King family. Every kid had heard of Fun Town, been there or envied someone who had. In the third cut on Side A, Dr. King spoke of how his daughter longed to visit the amusement park on Stewart Ave in Atlanta. Yolanda begged her parents whenever she spotted the big sign from the expressway or the commercials came on TV. Dr. King had to tell her in his low, sad rumble about the segregation system that kept colored boys and girls on the other side of the fence. Explain the misguided thinking of some whites -- not all whites, but enough whites – that gave it force and meaning. He counseled his daughter to resist the lure of hatred and bitterness and assured her that "Even though you can't go to Fun Town, you are as good as anyone who gets to go to Fun Town."

That was Elwood -- good as anyone. A hundred miles south of Atlanta, in Tallahassee. Sometimes he saw a Fun Town commercial while visiting his cousins in Georgia. Lurching rides and happy music, chipper white kids lining up for the Wild Mouse Roller Coaster, Dick's Mini Golf. Strap into the Atomic Rocket for a Trip to the Moon. A perfect report card guaranteed free admission, the commercials said, if your teacher stamped a red mark on it. Elwood got all A's and kept his stack of evidence for the day they opened Fun Town to all God's children, as Dr. King promised. "I'll get in free every day for a month, easy," he told his grandmother, lying on the front room rug and tracing a threadbare patch with his thumb.

His grandmother Hattie had rescued the rug from the alley behind the Richmond Hotel after the last renovation. The bureau in her room, the tiny table next to Elwood's bed, and three lamps were also Richmond castoffs. Hattie had worked at the hotel since she was fourteen, when she joined her mother on the cleaning staff. Once Elwood entered high school, the hotel manager Mr. Parker made it clear he'd hire him as a porter whenever he wanted, smart kid like him, and the white man was disappointed when the boy began working at Marconi's Tobacco & Cigars. Mr. Parker was always kind to the family, even after he had to fire Elwood's mother for stealing.

Elwood liked the Richmond and he liked Mr. Parker, but adding a fourth generation to the hotel's accounts made him uneasy in a way he found difficult to describe. Even before the encyclopedias. When he was younger, he sat on a crate in the hotel kitchen after school, reading comic books and Hardy Boys while his grandmother straightened and scrubbed upstairs. With both his parents gone, she preferred to have her nine-year-old grandson nearby instead of alone in the house. Seeing Elwood with the kitchen men made her think those afternoons were a kind of school in their own right, that it was good for him to be around men. The cooks and waiters took the boy for a mascot, playing hide and seek with him and peddling creaky wisdom on various topics: the white man's ways, how to treat a good-time gal, strategies for hiding money around the house. Elwood didn't understand what the older men talked about most of the time, but he nodded gamely before returning to his adventure stories.

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. Copyright © 2019 by Colson Whitehead. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. In the prologue, the narrator observes that after the truth about Nickel Academy comes out, "even the most innocent scene – a mess hall or the football field – came out sinister, no photographic trickery necessary." Can you think of a time in your life when discovering the history of a place (a particular building, a statue, a historical landmark, etc.) dramatically changed your perception of it?
  2. Elwood says that both he and Yolanda King "woke to the world," or discovered racism, at six years old. How old were you when you became aware of racism and inequality? How do you think this experience is different for different people?
  3. While in the infirmary, Elwood reads a pamphlet about Nickel that details the contributions the school has made to the community, including bricks from the brick-making machine "propping up buildings all over Jackson County." What do you think of the ways that the wider community seemed to benefit from labor performed by Nickel students? Do you see any historical or modern-day parallels to this symbiotic relationship?
  4. One student, Jaimie, is half-Mexican and constantly shuffled between the "white" and "colored" sections of Nickel Academy. Why do you think the author included a character with Jaimie's ethnic identity in this story?
  5. One of Elwood's takeaways from Dr. King's speeches is the importance of maintaining one's dignity in the face of oppression. Is Elwood's decision to escape (and risk the consequences of capture) rooted in the realization that he can no longer maintain his dignity in a place like Nickel?
  6. At one point, the narrator writes that "laughter knocked out a few bricks from the wall of segregation, so tall and so wide." Does humor truly lighten the burden for the boys? Or is it merely one of the very few things that can't be taken away from them?
  7. Who do you think was the true "villain" of the story? The teachers? The school itself? Something or someone else?


Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Anchor Books. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

From Pulitzer Prize winning-author Colson Whitehead comes a compelling coming-of-age tale of an African-American boy unjustly sentenced to reform school.

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In his last novel, The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead sketched an alternate version of the Civil War, in which the titular network of safe houses and escape routes transporting runaway slaves to Canada was an actual subterranean railroad system. Through the lens of the fantastical, the work examines the horrors of slavery, and offers a fresh perspective on American history.

Jumping a century forward, the author's follow-up, The Nickel Boys, takes place at the height of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, depicting an entrenched system of institutionalized racism that's nearly as brutal and dehumanizing as slavery itself. The story follows Elwood, an idealistic young man preparing to attend college when a tragic misunderstanding lands him in an inhumane reformatory school, the Nickel Academy. Bringing to life the horrors of Jim Crow, the novel considers the possibility of maintaining hope in the face of racist terror and violence.

The plot opens by sketching a vivid portrait of Elwood's life in Tallahassee, Florida, circa 1963. The teenager devotes all his energy to working at a convenience store, studying for his exams and preparing to be the first in his family to attend college. Raised in a home without a television and forbidden from listening to Motown, Elwood's favorite pastime is playing his album of Martin Luther King at Zion Hill, a collection of the activist's speeches and a Christmas gift from his grandmother Harriet. Strict but loving, Harriet has raised Elwood since his parents abandoned him at an early age, heading west to live unencumbered by childcare.

Comprising the first part of three, these chapters abound with references to the life-affirming activism of the Civil Rights Movement. Elwood loves reading Life photo essays about anti-racist protests, seeks out Black-owned newspapers like The Chicago Defender, and finds inspiration to better himself and fight for a just future in the bravery of the Freedom Riders. Extremely idealistic, he prides himself on being thought of as having an "industrious nature and steady character."

In neat, understated prose, Whitehead sensitively renders an era of political optimism. At the time the story starts, the Civil Rights Act of 1960 had recently established much-needed federal oversight of local voter registration polls, and more legislative victories seemed likely; the movement hadn't yet become disillusioned with white liberal politicians like JFK and LBJ. Elwood's community brims with hope, and the teen's faith in patience, industry and nonviolence reflect the time's dominant ethos.

Then, in the span of a few pages, everything falls apart. Caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, Elwood is accused of being an accomplice to theft by racist police officers. Whitehead smartly elides the protagonist's trial, leaving the details of his sentencing to the imagination, and the second and longest part of the novel begins with Elwood entering the Nickel Academy, a horrendous segregated reformatory school based on an infamous real-life institution (See Beyond the Book).

"I am stuck here, but I'll make the best of it," Elwood tells himself, "and I'll make it brief." The teen's faith that, if he follows the rules of the system, he'll be recognized as virtuous and released is soon challenged, though, both by the cynicism of his closest confidante at the academy, Turner, as well as the unrestrained violence and surveillance of Nickel's guards, teachers and administrators.

The crux of the plot hinges on whether or not Elwood can survive the academy with his idealism intact. In this, he acts as a symbol for the entirety of the Civil Rights Movement, which faced intensifying state repression during the mid-60s. Is nonviolence an effective response, Whitehead wonders, to a government that beats and bloodies unarmed protesters? Should Black people play by the rules of a racist system in their fight for better lives, or aim to topple it?

The debate about the merits of respectability politics and integrating into white society versus an ideology of Black liberation is as timely as ever, in an era when unabashed white supremacy is on the rise across the globe, and Whitehead's critique of assimilationist politics is sharp. Part of what makes the novel so memorable is the way the ending explicitly ties past injustice to the present, refusing to quarantine racism to the realm of history. So, too, does the author's quiet style refuse to sensationalize anti-Black violence, in contrast to other historical works of this kind.

Thoughtful and engaging, The Nickel Boys offers astute observations about the history of race relations in America: it's sure to appeal to the author's devoted readers as well as those new to his work.

Reviewed by Michael Kaler

Washington Post
The Nickel Boys feels like a smaller novel than The Underground Railroad, but it’s ultimately a tougher one, even a meaner one. It’s in conversation with works by James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison and especially Martin Luther King. In the trial of young Elwood, Whitehead dares to test the great preacher’s doctrine of inexorable love...And what a deeply troubling novel this is. It shreds our easy confidence in the triumph of goodness and leaves in its place a hard and bitter truth about the ongoing American experiment.

Harper's Bazaar
If you thought Colson Whitehead's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Underground Railroad was a tour de force, wait until you get your hands on The Nickel Boys.

New York Times
The books feel like a mission, and it’s an essential one. In a mass culture where there is no shortage of fiction, nonfiction, movies and documentaries dramatizing slavery and its sequels under other names (whether Jim Crow or mass incarceration or 'I can’t breathe'), Whitehead is implicitly asking why so much of this output has so little effect or staying power. [Whitehead] applies a master storyteller’s muscle not just to excavating a grievous past but to examining the process by which Americans undermine, distort, hide or 'neatly erase' the stories he is driven to tell.

Whitehead has long had a gift for crafting unforgettable characters, and Elwood proves to be one of his best...The Nickel Boys is a beautiful, wrenching act of witness, a painful remembrance of an 'infinite brotherhood of broken boys,' and it proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Whitehead is one of the most gifted novelists in America today.

The Nickel Boys is a strictly realist work, albeit still ripe with Whitehead's signature deadpan wit...The heart of The Nickel Boys is this extended dialogue between Elwood and Turner...[and] often feels like Whitehead’s conversation with both the idealistic forerunners of the civil rights generation and, by implication, the woke youth of today. Like perhaps his single greatest influence, Ralph Ellison, Whitehead negotiates a tightrope walk between the need to depict the experience of race and racism and a stubborn individualistic resistance to the claims of collective identity.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Whitehead's brilliant examination of America's history of violence is a stunning novel of impeccable language and startling insight.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school's long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead's novel displays its author's facility with violent imagery and his skill at weaving narrative strands into an ingenious, if disquieting whole.

Booklist (starred review)
Whitehead's magnetic characters exemplify stoicism and courage, and each supremely crafted scene smolders and flares with injustice and resistance, building to a staggering revelation. Inspired by an actual school, Whitehead's potently concentrated drama pinpoints the brutality and insidiousness of Jim Crow racism with compassion and protest...A scorching work.

Write your own review

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Jessica Elkins
Nickle Boys- excellent history lesson applies to today
This book should be a part of every Florida high school history curriculum. Colson's writing informs the reader of the horrors of the "school" and the complicity of the nearby town's authorities and asks important questions about how the long term abuses were continued and condoned.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Vicki
Almost as good as The Underground Railroad
I’m starting to think Colson Whitehead is a god. The fact that he can write so well, on so many topics, and entertain and get a message across, it’s just a WOW for me. This is a pretty dark story and I’m sure some will not like it for that reason alone. Read it anyway, even if you start hearing about how depressing it is. It’s based in facts and unfortunately these things happened. Although Whitehead has of course written a fictional book, it’s close enough to the truth to make it important. He is a wonderful writer and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

Rated 4 of 5 of 5 by Sandi W.
There were only 5 ways out ...
Thanks to Netgalley and Doubleday books for a chance to read and review this ARC. Published Jul 16, 2019.

Another winner by Whitehead. Having read Underground Railroad I was excited to see this book. Although feeling that this book was somewhat milder than Underground Railroad, I did enjoy the twists and turns that this book provided.

Whitehead based this fictional book on the true to life experiences of boys incarcerated at the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna Florida. In his acknowledgements he gives a number of other books and articles he used as reference for this book.

In the early 60's just as Martin Luther King started to become a household name, a young black boy hitched a ride and found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, all the while just trying to get to college. Having done nothing wrong, and just for the fact that he was black, Elwood was arrested and ended up being sent to the juvenile reformatory Nickel Academy.

Nickel Academy, where young boys were sent, and some never returned. With the White House and Black Beauty hanging over them, they became slaves to "The Man', whether they were Caucasian or Negro. There were only 5 ways out - age out, have the court intervene, have family remove you, accumulate the needed amount of merits, or disappear. Often boys disappeared at the hands of the Academy - Elwood chose to run.

There were some twists in this story that surprised me. Although a fictional story I believe for the most part Whitehead tried to tell the story of the Dozier School for Boys, then as is so like him, he added his own touch in the way of these twists and turns. Proving that is one of the reasons that Whitehead books are so worth the read.

Rated 3 of 5 of 5 by pam crowley
for young adults
I was hoping for a bit more true history - but this is a great book for young adults.

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Whitehead's Disturbing Inspiration: The Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys

Black and white picture of Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys under construction in 1936Colson Whitehead's The Nickel Boys sketches a horrific portrait of a brutal reformatory school, the Nickel Academy, where staff members routinely torture and terrorize the institution's teenage students. The events of the story are unsettling, and even more so given that Nickel is a fictionalized version of Florida's first juvenile detention center: the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys.

Opened in 1900 in the panhandle town of Marianna, the detention center was first run by governor-appointed commissioners, and later directly by the governor and cabinet of Florida. According to Smithsonian Magazine, Florida state statutes mandated that the center be "not simply a place of correction, but a reform school, where the young offender of the law, separated from vicious associates, may receive careful physical, intellectual and moral training."

In practice, the Dozier School for Boys was anything but humane or reform-oriented. Within the past decade about 300 men have come forth and testified that faculty and staff members regularly administered torture on campus, in a cloistered building the center's students called the White House. Calling themselves "the White House Boys," these men have talked openly to news outlets across the country about the horrors they endured during their stay at the state-operated institution: underfunded and unsanitary facilities, untrained and violent staff members and overcrowded lodging.

In 2008, the White House Boys banded together with other former students to explore and expose the school's terrible conditions. According to their findings, corporal punishment occurred frequently, from staff members paddling boys to administering horrific beatings, and dozens of unmarked burial sites were scattered around Dozier's campus. Confronted with mounting public outcry, governor Charlie Christ ordered a state investigation into the White House Boys' claims in 2008.

Far from being thorough, however, the investigation into the unmarked gravesites relied exclusively on incomplete school records. Authorities found only 31 unmarked graves, which they insisted could be attributed to deaths from natural causes, and they ignored the White House Boys' allegations of abuse. Dismissing the findings as a sham, the men called for a new investigation, and the federal Department of Justice responded in 2011, conducting an independent inquiry.

The national authorities confirmed the claims of the White House Boys. The Department of Justice found that excessive force and insufficient funding plagued the school from its start, and continued into the present day. At last, faced with indisputable evidence of wrongdoing, the Dozier School for Boys closed in 2011.

A 2016 excavation conducted by forensic anthropologists and archaeologists has further vindicated the White House Boys. The team dug up not just the school's cemetery but also other sites across campus, such as the nearby woods. They found 55 burial sites, 13 in the school cemetery and 42 unmarked graves across campus.

Race played a significant role in the abuse, which was segregated until 1966. The excavation team at the burial sites found that three times as many black students died at Dozier than white students, and many of the murdered black boys had been incarcerated for minor charges like running away. Such horrific facts make the ending of The Nickel Boys all too realistic and painful.

Juvenile detention centers nationwide continue to be underfunded and overcrowded. Over the past two decades, federal funding for these institutions has plummeted, dropping from $547 million in 2002 to $251 million in 2015. A recent report by the Justice Policy Institute has found that juvenile detention centers may even be more harmful than helpful. The report found that there's no evidence that detaining youth in these institutions makes them less likely to reoffend, but its findings did suggest that detainment puts youth at greater risk for substance abuse, delinquency and violence. Teens can still be incarcerated for minor offenses like shoplifting, and once in these centers, they often become more aggressive and jaded.

Until the government invests more resources into these facilities and reforms the way they operate, it seems likely that the cycle of neglect, abuse and ineffective management will continue, resulting in further adversity for the young people detained there.

Filed under Society and Politics

By Michael Kaler

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