Summary and book reviews of The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

The Nickel Boys

by Colson Whitehead

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead X
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2019, 224 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2020, 224 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Michael Kaler
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About this Book

Book Summary

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.

Excerpt
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...

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 ...
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  • award image

    Pulitzer Prize for Letters, Drama and Music
    2020

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

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. 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...continued

Full Review (761 words).

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(Reviewed by Michael Kaler).

Media Reviews

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.

NPR
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.

Slate
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.

Reader Reviews

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 ...   Read More

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 ...   Read More

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 ...   Read More

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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Beyond the Book

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 ...

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