The Nickel Boys

The Nickel Boys

A Novel

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In this bravura follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize, and National Book Award-winning 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.
ISBN: 9780385537070
Branch Call Number: BOOK CLUB BAG Whitehead / Nickel
Characteristics: Original contents: 10 regular print books, 1 large print book, 1 SCD, 1 reader's guide in 1 bag


From Library Staff

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 ... Read More »

"Like the Underground Railroad it is based on a historical event but this is more historical fiction than that was. There are two narrators, one who is hopeful and the other skeptical which provides different ways of viewing the same events."

From the critics

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ArapahoeAnnaL Sep 19, 2019

The main character, Elwood, is a high school student in 1962, living in a Black neighborhood in Tallahassee, conscientious and thoughtful, happy enough with life but stung by the humiliations imposed by the Jim Crow south and inspired by Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement. Less than a quarter of the way into the story we find out how vulnerable and tentative this life actually was. When Elwood finds himself in an abusive and dangerous boys' reform school Whitehead keeps the writing matter of fact so that the rage and horror fall to the reader. Despite the reality of life in the south, Elwood clings to a belief in American justice. Elwood's idealism and the friendship he finds balance the dark events depicted.

Life in an abusive and dangerous boys' reform school is an allegory of life in the Jim Crow south.

Sep 17, 2019

Listened to an interview on NPR this summer and said to myself I didn't want to read about the unfortunate Nickel Boys and the people who abused them. It's been a year of awful revelations in the news, and I am just going to skip this book. I relented a few months later and put it on hold. It's excellent, you'll be rooting for Elwood, socked by his twist of fate, rooting again for him to escape, and finally shocked by the surprise ending. It's tough to understand that this novel was based on "real-life" reform school—Dozier in Florida. History can be hard. It's important to write the truth about all of it.

JCLS_Ashland_Kristin Sep 16, 2019

This unflinching look at a Florida "reform" school (based on true events) is an important view into what happens when young boys are incarcerated at a very young age.


I was captured from the first sentence. Colson Whitehead uses words like paint, my mind the canvas.

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.

Sep 10, 2019

I echo the praise from other commentators here - incredibly powerful book, horrific portrayal of the 1950s Jim Crow South (the Nickel School is based on a real FL one called Dozier), a main character you won't forget, beautiful writing, and, yes, a surprise ending I didn't see coming at all and made me cry. If all that's not enough, Whitehead accomplishes all this in just over 200 pages!

Sep 05, 2019

A powerful story about a fictional reform school and the horrors it holds for African American children. Colson Whitehead is a masterful writer and this book and its surprise ending will stay with you for a long time.

Sep 04, 2019

See also Frank Rich's review of this novel in NYT Book Review (21 July 2019)

VaughanPLDaniela Sep 01, 2019

A gripping novel with a surprising conclusion, The Nickel Boys relates the powerful and harrowing story of Elwood and Turner, two young black boys sent to the Nickel Academy, a reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida. Although their story is painful and sad, this novel is an important one unveiling the horrors of extreme racial prejudice. Despite the dark tone, Whitehead still manages to leave his characters (and hopefully readers) with an enduring sense of hope for the future.

Aug 31, 2019

WOW! This is one of the finest books I read this year. It is very well written, an engaging plot and an unexpected conclusion.

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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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