The Nickel Boys

The Nickel Boys

A Novel

Book - 2019
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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.
Publisher: New York : Doubleday, [2019]
Edition: First edition.
Copyright Date: ©2019
ISBN: 9780385537070
Branch Call Number: WHITEHEA
Characteristics: 213 pages ; 22 cm


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From Library Staff

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

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STPL_JessH Aug 19, 2019

I absolutely LOVED Nickel Boys. I thought the twist at the end was an outstanding piece of theatre and I wanted to reread the book immediately. Whitehead is certainly a master of his craft! I highly recommend this book!

Aug 18, 2019

The biased, bigoted, prejudiced social and political situations are still a real part of too many Americans' lives.
This is not "history" as in gone and over.
So, how is our conscience informed by Whitehead's honest telling of true facts?

Have you heard of the Innocence Project? (around the country)

Aug 18, 2019

A truly haunting story of man's inhumanity to man. This was set in the 60's and although there may not be such cruel schools today - there are still people and places that are just as cruel in the language and actions today. Elwood only wanted to do what was right in this world and he suffered the cruelest injustice. Everyone should read this book and learn what has been done to people in the name of justice. This story will stay with you for a long time after you turn the last page.

OPL_BethS Aug 13, 2019

Courageous and sobering. I found myself slowing down and rereading Whitehead's well-crafted sentences in this fictional account based on actual events, and the ending made it all worth it. Elwood Curtis was a boy who did everything right, yet he still ended up in the juvenile reformatory, Nickel Academy. He never gave up hope or his belief in the goodness in people.

Aug 09, 2019

To say that this book will blow you away is to belittle it. It is a really powerful book and the extent of cruelty meted out beggars description. I cannot do justice to Whitehead's work by trying to describe it; suffice it to say that the book brought tears to my eyes. The epilogue was particularly touching and the last paragraph was ironical.

Aug 05, 2019

Although the stories of racial injustice never fail to astound me, Whitehead's description and in-depth writing style is what stands out to me. The narrative of Elwood Curtis stands in for many young black men/women violated by prejudice. Elwood tries to hang on to MLK's words of love which are in juxtaposition to "He never listened...saw what was in front of him and now ..plucked from the world altogether. The only voices were those of the boys below, the shouts and laughter and fearful cries, as if he floated in a bitter heaven."

Aug 04, 2019


Wow, warning you now this novel is a real power keg of emotions. It is based on true events (Google: white house boys reform school Florida) that will turn your stomach. I went into this novel without reading the synopsis so as I listened to the audio I had a sense of deja vu. Recently, I had heard a true crime podcast about this boys reform school in Florida where young boys had gone missing. It would be several decades later that the mystery would come to light. When I listened to the author's notes at the end (before doing my own Googling) I knew the two were the same place.

After I had finished the podcast the story stuck with me. And after reading this book, I know that this story will forever be with me. Whitehead takes the boys's stories and characterizes them in Elwood Curtis. Elwood tries to better himself, despite his parents abandonment and make his grandmother proud. He works hard at school and his after school job hoping one day to go to college. One minor transgression puts him in a boys reform school, that punishes him for (basically anything) being above his "station". Elwood was to take college classes so when he asks for those courses he becomes a bigger target. Listening to the tales that Whitehead explores in this novel, it makes me think of the real life boys and their backstories. I have to stop here as I can go on and on and I don't want to give away any spoilers.

This novel is haunting. There is this uncomfortable feeling that this was allowed to go on, along with heartbreaking moments. It's a tough one, no doubt, but if you can do it, I would highly recommend The Nickel Boys. Just like one of my favourite novels, To Kill a Mockingbird, this novel brings home the injustice we brush away.

My Novelesque Blog

Aug 04, 2019

August 4, 2019 - on the Tulsa World Best Seller's List

Jul 24, 2019

Why! So much cruelty “suffered all this in his 15yrs what more lay in store”. Still! We peek into pain I can not even fathom! And courage to go on,

Hillsboro_ChrisK Jul 18, 2019

Whitehead’s novel takes place at a fictitious Florida reform school called The Nickel Academy. Nickel is based on the real-life Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, which was a hellish torture prison masquerading as a reform schools that operated during from 1900 until 2011. The main character, Elwood Curtis, is sent to Nickel after he has accepted a ride in a stolen car. An archetypal goody two shoes, Elwood believes that his hard work and honesty will set him free.

While the story is based on the experiences of African American boys at the savage Dozier School, Nickel is a stand-in for American society at large. Elwood’s diligence and rule-following are not enough. The game is rigged against him and he must learn this difficult lesson while he negotiates the cruel and arbitrary world into which he has been thrust.

Whitehead’s writing reminds me a lot of the writing of Ralph Ellison. The world both writers create is nearly identical to the one I occupy, but it’s just a quarter turn off. I’m always taken a bit aback as events and people don’t quite behave the way I think they should. This disconcerting reality shift is what I imagine African American people must experience on a daily basis in American society: things are supposed to be a certain way, but that never seems to quite happen.

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