The Nickel Boys

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 23 Jul 2019

Member Reviews

It took longer than expected to read because of the slow pace. The Nickel Boys is fiction but I kept thinking about all the unfortunate, black boys who actually lived through this horror. Whitehead is an excellent writer who pays acute attention to detail. His description of NYC is spot on. You don’t just read the boys pain, you feel it with them. Misfortune lead most of the kids to Nickel Academy but it was the Academy that destroyed their lives.
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This is the second book I've read by Colson Whitehead, the first one being The Underground Railroad which I thoroughly enjoyed. I knew I wouldn't be disappointed the his newest book The Nickel Boys, and I wasn't.. A fictional telling of a true time in our history. The Nickel Boys tell the story of Elwood, raised by his grandmother to be a good person, who ends up at Nickel for something that he didn't do. This book jumps into the past and the present but without the confusion that some authors seem to do. I highly recommend this book. It makes you angry and sad as it should. Thank you Mr. Whitehead for another great book.
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This review has been submitted to Southern Literary Review. 

The review has now been posted and SLR selected it as its August Read of the Month.

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
Review by Claire Hamner Matturro

Colson Whitehead once more proves the sheer power of his talent with The Nickel Boys (Doubleday (July 16, 2019), a heartbreaking, chilling story about an innocent black youth sent to a hellish reform school in North Florida during the Jim Crow days. At once both restrained and searing, the story is devastating, more so given that while the book is fiction, it’s more true than not. The novel is based up factual accounts of what happened to boys and youths sent to the notorious Florida School for Boys, also known as the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, a so-called reform school run by the State of Florida near Marianna, FL.  Investigators are still finding bodies of students from Dozier buried in hidden graves, their skeletons showing evidence of the violent injuries that put them in the secret burial spots.

In The Nickel Boys, Whitehead avoids detailed, head-on depictions of graphic violence, which makes the story simultaneously more bearable and yet more haunting. He leaves it up to the readers to imagine some of the worst beatings, but personalizes these with stories of youths literally beaten to death by guards. This is not a story for the weak stomach or the faint heart. Yet, it is such an important book that it should be read and understood in a primal way so that no one allows a school like this to ever flourish again. To what should be the eternal shame of Florida, the actual Dozier’s school exited from 1900 to 2011, and still appears in news stories as more evidence of atrocities emerge. 

At the heart of the story, protagonist Elwood Curtis is a hard-working black youth who lives with grandmother, Harriet, in the black enclave of Frenchtown in segregated Tallahassee. His parents long ago just took off, but his grandmother is more than able to raise him and is a force of power and a fountain of love for Elwood. She also raises him with a strict hand. Whitehead captures Harriet beautifully in these sentences: “She kept a sugarcane machete under her pillow for intruders, and it was difficult for Elwood to think that the old woman was afraid of anything. But fear was her fuel.”

Elwood receives “the best gift of his life on Christmas Day 1962, even if the ideas it put in his head were his undoing.” The gift was a record album of “Martin Luther King at Zion Hill,” a recorded collection of King’s speeches. After playing the record repeatedly, Elwood decides he is—as King insists—“as good as anybody.” For a black youth in 1962 in Jim Crow Tallahassee, FL, this is a radical and dangerous thought.
After participating in some racial protests and with the encouragement of a teacher, Elwood decides to enroll in the area’s black college. He has no means of getting to the school, so he hitchhikes. Unfortunately, the driver who picks him up just stole the car, and Elwood—despite his rather obvious innocence and his excellent reputation—ends up being sentenced to Nickel Academy, the fictitious Dozier’s reform school.  While the state-owned Nickel Academy proclaims that it provides the "physical, intellectual and moral training" to turn delinquent boys and youths into "honorable and honest men," in fact the place is a hellhole of brutality. 
Taking a page right out of the actual history of Dozier’s school, Whitehead paints an agonizing portrait of sadistic staff members who beat and rape students, deprive the students of state-supplied food which staffers sell to local restaurants, and intentionally kill youths who protest or even hint at fighting back or running away. Elwood, having been a naïve, well-behaved young person with no history of imprisonment, totally lacks the skills to survive in such a grotesque environment. Fortunately, a more savvy youth, Turner, takes Elwood under his wings. But even with Turner’s help, conditions and events only get worse for both youths.  

The Nickel Boys, released this July, is so far a critical and commercial success as the book well deserves. The acclaim is no surprise as Whitehead is no stranger to accolades. His most recent previous book, The Underground Railroad, won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, as well as being an Oprah's Book Club selection, named a New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Time, People and NPR book of the year and was a number one New York Times best-seller. 

The Nickel Boys might suffer somewhat in comparison to The Underground Railroad, which is as close to a perfect book as has been written this decade. While both books use history to shape the story, The Underground Railroad used magical realism to bolster the story in contrast to the straight-forward, often sparse style in Nickel Boys. Yet, make no mistake, Nickel Boys with its sharp, direct narratives, is an excellent book even if it is not quite the perfection of The Underground Railroad. 
Whitehead has a true and rare gift and he can nail a scene, an emotion, and a character in a few sharp words. His narrative excels in that regard, even as he moves the story forward. 

As he does with characters, Whitehead also does with fear. The stark simplicity of “You can hide a lot in an acre, in the dirt” is as chilling as Elwood’s glimpse of the backs of two Nickel’s boys, with their “long lumpy lines of scars and what looked like burn marks.” The scars evidence the truth of the claims no one believed, or no one cared about, scars from their tenure in the “White House,” the place where youths were taken and whipped. Whitehead writes: "The white boys bruised differently than the black boys and called it the Ice Cream Factory because you came out with bruises of every color. The black boys called it the White House because that was its official name and it fit and didn't need to be embellished." 

Elwood learns the hard way about those long lumpy lines of scars and the White House after he innocently tries to break up a fight. Yanked from his bed in the middle of the night, he is taken to the White House for a beating so severe he passes out, and wakes in the school’s infirmity injured so viciously he is unable to lay on his back. Whitehead spares readers too many of the brutal details, but does not spare readers from the impact of such beatings on the psyche of the tortured youths. Elwood’s beating endures beyond the actual bloody wounds, and "had him scarred all over, not just his legs," but the whipping “had weeviled deep into his personality."

As a cautionary tale, Nickel Boys excels. This is a book that should be required reading. One of the most important lessons is found in one of his early sentences. "Plenty of boys had talked of the secret graveyard before, but as it had ever been ... no one believed them until someone else said it."

Let’s be sure that if there is ever a next time, someone will believe.
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It is a powerful story of two boys and how they handle this correctional school for boys. The school is the worst place you can think of in the South but these boys manage until one day things change. That was a twist I didn’t really see coming.
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I'll be honest. I was a little nervous to read this book because I knew that it depicted the gruesome violence directed against African-American males at a fictionalized version of a brutal reform school in Florida. In both this and his previous novel, The Underground Railroad, Whitehead lays bare the racialized violence that threads through U.S. history, and there's no reason to expect that it will or should be a comfortable read.

Whitehead, though, is such a good storyteller that you are drawn into the narrative right away. He starts in the present with a University of South Florida student on an archeology project discovering Nickel Academy's secret graveyard. This unmarked graveyard is where Nickel buried students - mostly black students - who'd died under their brutal treatment. Whitehead brings all the actors to life and makes you care about the story immediately. When he shifts to the story of Elwood Curtis, a young man who's grown up listening to Martin Luther King and living with his grandmother in Tallahassee, the scene has been set for the story of this horrific place to be revealed.

But then Whitehead takes his time letting it unfold, starting with Elwood's youth and fully developing him as a character. By the time Elwood is sent to Nickel Academy, the groundwork has been laid to emphasize a sense of outrage at the racially-based miscarriage of justice that has cut short his education and promise. The reader is presented both with the spiteful brutality of the institution, as well as the brutality that comes of robbing black young men of a future. There are both white and black inmates at Nickel, but those on the black "campus" come in for the most vicious mistreatment.

Alongside the tale of Elwood's horrific experience at Nickel, and a post-Nickel storyline, Whitehead interweaves stories of other students at Nickel. I won't give away the details, but Whitehead gives a wide angle view of the institution's racism, corruption, and brutality. Because the stories are wide-ranging, the novel can feel a little disconnected at points, but it all comes together in the end.

This is an incredible book. It tells a crucial history that has been long buried and tells it in a compelling way. I completely recommend it.
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3.75 stars - 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 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.
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I was not a fan of The Underground Railroad, but wanted to give Whitehead another shot. I avoided reading the ARC because I wasn’t sure how I’d feel. I’m so glad I finally read it. This story as a whole was gut wrenching, but the story of friendship I such devastating circumstances was filled with hope. I think this one will stay with me for a long time.
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It was an amazing experience to learn about the Florida School for Boys, a real-life place, through the eyes of two fictional black children written by the masterful hand of Colson Whitehead. I highly recommend this book to librarians, adults interested in history and social justice, and higher-level young adults.
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I knew the young black boy was in trouble from the get-go; things were just going too well for him.  My heart cried when Elwood was sent to Nickel's  "school" due to the fact that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and it was obvious there were many hard times ahead.  And so there were, from sadistic people in charge to not enough food to eat. It is a sad, difficult story.   Elwood is an idealist and clings to Dr. Martin Luther King's "Throw us in jail, and we will still love you."  Turner, Elwood's friend, is a realist with survivor instincts. Things get messy; however, in spite of all that happens, there is a hopeful ending, of which I am most grateful.  This is an excellent read inspired by a reform school in Florida   I hope our society reaps good from it.
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The Nickel Boys was a fascinating fictionalization of a true American story. Colson Whitehead lets readers experience the horror of this boys school while focusing on the mindset of the main character who is coming to realize the depths of what he is experiencing. As Elwood gets less and less freedom, he begins to understand that he deserves so much more. The shocking reveal at the end was a heart-rending but realistic close to The Nickel Boys.
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In his latest historical novel, Whitehead tells the story of a reform school set in the Deep South during the Jim Crow years. Elwood Curtis, a slightly quixotic African American boy with dreams of college and joining Dr. Martin Luther King’s work, is sentenced to Nickel for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. There, he meets Jack Turner, a more practical-minded boy with dreams and plans of his own. Through these two well-wrought characters, Whitehead gives voice to many boys who were broken, beat-down, and even killed by a hateful, unjust system. But even as he chronicles unspeakable and atrocious acts, Whitehead also gives hope. There is hope in the power of human dreams, and their capacity to uplift not only the dreamers, but those around them.
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Elwood Curtis, a  bright young man on the verge of greater things in the Jim Crow South of the 1960s, gets swept up in a crime and is sentenced to a stint at Nickel Academy, a reform school. Although the school has a sterling reputation, the reality is darker, and Elwood must learn to navigate the violence, unwritten laws and tenuous relationships at the institution. Based on the true story  of a reform school that damaged the lives of thousands in Florida, Nickel Boys is a powerful and relevant tale of resilience.
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I was just blown away by “The Nickel Boys” by American treasure @ColsonWhitehead. Both its crushing depiction of an awful range of racist crimes and gratitude for his stellar, surprising storytelling. And its moments of sweetness. ❤️Elwood. Get it, read it.
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The Nickel Boys tells the horrifying experiences of young “lost” boys living at a Juvenal school.  Knowing these experiences were based on real people and a real place makes horrifying an understatement. Colin Whitehead is an author who brings truth to the past which I have never read in my school history books.  Telling the perspective of young black boys during the Jim Crow era understandably justifies how these boys lives were altered and difficult in the current time.  Reading this book has enlightened me to experiences of people beyond my world and my personal understanding of the past.

Thank you Netgalley for providing me with this advanced copy.
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Colson Whitehead has written another masterpiece. The Nickel Boys is a work of fiction, but it is based on a real school for boys in Florida. The Nickel School for Boys was meant to be a reform school for wayward boys.  But it turned out to be a torture chamber for so many who were sent there.  Elwood Curtis was an innocent victim of circumstances that sent him to Nickel.  Elwood was a rabid reader, an intelligent young man with a bright future..He was filled with hope that justice would prevail and  that he would quickly be released.  But Elwood would learn of the unlimited bounds of cruelty of which some men are capable.
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Wow! I can't stop thinking about this book. The characters haunt me, and no spoilers, but the ending was like a punch to the gut. Brilliant, heart-wrenching storytelling.
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This is one of those books that just wow you.  Based on a true story, Whitehead tells us the story of a Elwood's experience in a Florida reform school in the 1960s.  Segregated and violent, Nickel Academy marks every boy who passes through.  As an adult, having made his way to New York City, he's created a good life for himself, but when the school is closed and archeologist's start discovering bodies of dead boys where they shouldn't be, he knows that it's time to confront his past.

It would be easy for this book to get weighed down with the brutality of the school and of the Jim Crow south in general, but Elwood's courage and dreams, and Whitehead's writing, lift the story above the mud.  The writing is very plain, but descriptive, allowing the actions, thoughts, and feelings of the characters to speak for themselves, making them that much more resonant with the reader.

As I read this book, I kept wishing it was longer, if only because it was so good that the ending was bound to be disappointing.  I can only say that I needn't have worried, as the ending was absolutely perfect.  Kudos to Mr. Whitehead.  This is a book that deserves to be read, and re-read, by everyone.
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Upsetting. Powerful. Another deeper dive into the United State's exploitative history from Colson Whitehead.

Obviously, I knew going into this that the subject was going to be a heavy-hitter, but I think I was still -somehow- caught off-guard by how devastating it was. The contrast between our main character, Elwood's, hope for the future -not just his future, but the future of African-Americans in general- and The Nickel Academy's disgusting brutality and bigotry was so upsetting. I went back and forth rooting for Elwood, being excited for all he could accomplish, and despairing over his circumstances, feeling sick to my stomach. Knowing that this book is fictionalized, but that this actually was a reality only 50 years ago is revolting. I hope everyone reads this, and I hope it angers them too.

Thank you so much to Doubleday and NetGalley for the eARC. This review will be posted to Goodreads, and to Amazon's and Barnes & Noble's websites.
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Colson Whitehead is definitely one of the best writers of this generation. His stories and words are so compelling and it’s difficult to turn away from them. This book is no different. It squeezes at my heart.
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An instant classic.

The writing is so smooth and plainspoken that it transports you to a different time and place, a place both familiar and completely alien. What is truly magical about the book is that it seems devoid of time, or more accurately of a time period. Although it mostly takes place in the past, the characters and scenes are so fresh and present that you feel part of the virtual landscape.

A coming of age story and a history lesson all rolled into one, the characters and their experiences are sure to stay with you for a long time to come.
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