The Nickel Boys
A NovelBook - 2019
When Elwood Curtis, a black boy growing up in 1960s Tallahassee, is unfairly sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy, he finds himself trapped in a grotesque chamber of horrors. Elwood's only salvation is his friendship with fellow "delinquent" Turner, which deepens despite Turner's conviction that Elwood is hopelessly naive, that the world is crooked, and that the only way to survive is to scheme and avoid trouble. As life at the Academy becomes ever more perilous, the tension between Elwood's ideals and Turner's skepticism leads to a decision whose repercussions will echo down the decades.
Based on the real story of a reform school that operated for 111 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 and "should further cement Whitehead as one of his generation's best" (Entertainment Weekly).
Look for Colson Whitehead's new novel, Harlem Shuffle , coming this September!
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From Library Staff
LPL_ShirleyB Aug 14, 2017
Colson Whitehead was chosen as the 2020 Ross and Marianna Beach Author. Whitehead earned the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the Carnegie Medal for Fiction in 2016 for The Underground Railroad.
LPL_ReadersServices May 12, 2020
Pulitzer Prize Winner for Fiction | A spare and devastating exploration of abuse at a reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida that is ultimately a powerful tale of human perseverance, dignity and redemption.
LPL_SarahM Sep 11, 2019
Yesterday I was describing a chapter of Underground Railroad to a co-worker and I almost started crying. It's been well over a year since I've read that book! Colson Whitehead is a dang genius. This book has ripped my heart out once again.
LPL_PolliK May 03, 2019
Colson Whitehead delivers another stellar novel, and this one is a heartbreaker. "Nickel Boys" is an emotionally intense, spare, and compelling historical fiction that is based on a true story. Elwood is an idealistic black boy carving out the brightest future he's able in the Jim Crow ... Read More »
From the critics
QuotesAdd a Quote
“… The law was one thing – you can march and wave signs around and change a law if you convinced enough white people. In Tampa, Turner saw the college kids with their nice shirts and ties sit-in at the Woolworths [restaurant]. He had to work, but they were out protesting. And it happened – they opened the counter [to Negroes]. Turner didn’t have the money to eat there either way. You can change the law but you can’t change people and how they treat each other. Nickel was racist as hell …” (p. 105)
“Punishment for acting above your station was a central principle in [Elwood’s grandmother] Harriet’s interpretation of the world. In the hospital, Elwood wondered if the viciousness of his beating owed something to his request for harder classes: Get that uppity nigger. Now he worked on a new theory: There was no higher system guiding Nickel’s [the reform school] brutality, merely an indiscriminate spite, one that had nothing to do with people. A figment from 10th grade science struck him: a Perpetual Misery Machine, one that operated by itself without human agency. Also, Archimedes … Violence is the only lever big enough to move the world.” (p. 85)
“… His father, Clarence, was a bit of a ‘rambler’, not that he had to be told because he had the same affliction. Turner remembered him as two big brown hands and a raspy chuckle. … Turner last saw his father when he was 3 years old. … His mother, Dorothy, hung around longer, long enough for her to choke on her own vomit. … He knew where she was now – 6 feet under in St. Sebastian Cemetery – which was one thing he had on his upstanding friend Elwood. Elwood’s mother and father had lit out West and didn’t even send a postcard. What kind of mother leaves her kid in the middle of the night? … He made a note to save that as a low blow if he and Elwood ever got into a real fight. Turner knew his mother loved him. She just loved liquor more.” (p. 125)
“All those lost geniuses…they had been denied even the simple pleasure of being ordinary. Hobbled and handicapped before the race even began, never figuring out how to be normal.” - p. 166
“To think of those Nickel nights where the only sounds were tears and insects, how you could sleep in a room crammed with sixty boys and still understand that you were the only person on earth.” - p. 160
“We must believe in our souls that we are somebody, that we are significant, that we are worthful, and we must walk the streets of life every day with this sense of dignity and this sense of somebody-ness.” — Martin Luther KIng, Jr. - pp. 26-27; p.181
“He had to trust a stranger to do the right thing. It was impossible, like loving the one who wanted to destroy you, but that was the message of the movement: to trust in the ultimate decency that lived in every human heart.”
“To forbid the thought of escape, even that slightest butterfly thought of escape, was to murder one’s humanity.”
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
SummaryAdd a 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.
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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