The nickel boys : a novel

by Colson Whitehead

Hardcover, 2019




New York : Doubleday, [2019]


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.… (more)

Media reviews

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
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implicitly asking why so much of this output has so little effect or staying power. He 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.
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Even when he’s arrested on the flimsiest evidence and sentenced to Nickel Academy, Elwood clings to his faith that goodness will be rewarded, that the rule of law will prevail. The academy, as Whitehead presents it, is a place of well-groomed exteriors and encouraging principles — a place, if
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you will, like the United States at large... 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.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member msf59
“Perhaps Nickel was the very afterlife that awaited him, with a White House down the hill and an eternity of oatmeal and an infinite brotherhood of broken boys.”

Set in the Jim Crow south, in the early 60s, this powerful and haunting novel, follows Elwood Curtis, a black teen, abandoned by his
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parents and raised by a strong, doting, grandmother. Just before he is about to enroll in college, he is inadvertently mixed up in a crime and sentenced to Nickel Academy, a Florida, a juvenile reformatory. Nickel, based on a real reform school, from that era, is hell on earth. Within days of arriving, Elwood is beaten savagely and this is just the beginning. There are sadistic guards, some that sexually prey on the boys. Corrupt officials that hire out the services of the boys and steal their food and supplies. And other boys just simply “disappear”.
Whitehead's last book, The Underground Railroad, was a strong, inventive read and he has delivered here, once again, becoming one of the best voices in fiction, shining a light on America's shadowy past. This one is not for the faint of heart but if you can stomach the horrors, I highly recommend it.
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LibraryThing member lauralkeet
Elwood Curtis’ parents left him in the care of his grandmother at a young age, but through her steady, nurturing hand he grew into a hard-working teenage boy, encouraged by his teacher to enroll in college-level courses while still in high school. But on the way to his first college class, Elwood
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is implicated in a possible crime and, this being the 1960s and Elwood being black, he is immediately sent to the notorious Nickel Academy, a boys’ reform school.

Nickel is modeled on the real-life Dozier School for Boys in Florida, which committed unconscionable abuses for over a century. In recent years, survivors have shared their stories, and unmarked graves have been found in parts of the school grounds. A team from the University of South Florida excavated the sites and made DNA matches for many Dozier boys who had simply disappeared. Like Dozier, Nickel Academy is unsparing in its cruelty, with staff routinely carrying out beatings, rapes, and killing for even the smallest infractions.

Once at Nickel, Elwood works hard to earn points for good behavior that can help him earn an early release. But he cannot escape the arbitrary cruelty, experiencing it personally and witnessing its impact on countless others. Elwood is luckier that some: considered trustworthy and low risk, he is assigned duties that allow him to see the “free world” outside Nickel. But working alongside his friend Turner, Elwood is also exposed to Nickel’s corruption and its impact on the boys, especially the black boys. His strong sense of right and wrong compels him to action that he hopes will bring justice.

Towards the end of the novel, the narrative begins shifting between Elwood’s time at Nickel and the present-day, offering a glimmer of hope for a survivor of such horrors. But Colson Whitehead doesn’t let readers off that easily. As with his previous work, he shows not just the realities of racism in America, but our tendency to ignore both the acts and the lessons we can learn from them.
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LibraryThing member Perednia
When this book is released, get a copy as soon as you can and read it and treasure it and cry over it and be inspired by it.
LibraryThing member Romonko
After all the hype about this book, and after reading The Underground Railroad by this same author, I was expecting great things with this book. Unfortunately it didn't happen - not for me anyway. Fortunately it's a fairly short book, or I probably would have put it aside before I got halfway
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through. Yes, the subject matter is appalling, and very graphic. Yes, the book highlights the problems in the southern states in the late 1960's with segregation running rampant even after it was legislated to not be continued. There were enough good old boys and Ku Klux Klan members to ensure that the black people were kept securely in their place, and never was this more apparent than in the juvenile detention centres run by the states in various southern states. The Nickel Academy was located in Florida, and it managed to keep its abhorrent secrets for over 100 years. The book is a fictionalized account of one 15 year old black boy who got caught up in the system through no fault of his own, and ended up being sentenced to two years at that academy. What Elwood discovers at this house of horrors far surpasses his darkest imaginings. He suffers physical abuse and witnesses abuses that lead up to death numerous times in his short stint at Nickel. This takes us to about 2/3 of the way through the book, and then we begin Part Three. Here is where the storyline and timelines get messed up and distorted. We are flipped back and forth from 1967 at Nickel to present day New York City. No explanations, no Segway. Just random jumping back and forth. When I finished, I wondered why I bothered. I learned nothing new, and didn't enjoy the journey. After reading a similar story about aboriginal schools in Canada around this time - a little jewel of a book called Wenjack written by one of our wonderful Canadian authors by the name of Joseph Boyden, this book just does not begin to measure up and does not engender the same empathy at all. It's more of a shock-and-awe tale, with no real character development. I cannot recommend this book.
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LibraryThing member joannemonck
A fantastic read - wonderfully written. It is the horrible story of life in the South in the 50's and 60's at a
boys school for wayward boys. The books hero (Elwood) tries to blend in but meets a problem at every turn. This is a story of abuse by authorities, boys lost and a surprising ending that
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will bring tears to your eyes.
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LibraryThing member bookworm12
This one fell firmly in the category of: I wish I could have read a nonfiction book about this instead. It's based on the real story of a juvenile facility in Florida that abused young boys. Elwood and Tucker become friends as they try to survive the horrors of life at Nickel. It flashes back and
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forth in time and never really hit the right pace for me.
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LibraryThing member streamsong
It’s 1962 and Elwood’s grandma is trying to raise him right. She’s instilled in him the merits of hard work, education, and keeping himself away from neighborhood troublemakers.

It’s a hard time to be a young black man. Elwood can see the injustices and racism and he takes part in a few
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minor protests. Then one of his high school teachers tells him that there is an opportunity to take college classes while he is still in high school. Elwood’s battered bike won’t take him that far, so he hitches a ride – and the car turns out to be stolen.

He’s confined to the Nickel school – a brutal reform institution. Nobody minds if the kids are overworked, underfed, tortured and even beaten to death. Relatives are told their missing sons have run away. The reality are unmarked graves in an area known as Boot Hill.

The tension and brutality continued to build as I read this. I was at the point of having so much dread about what would happen that I wanted to put the book down.

But then, author Whitehead showed his skill in storytelling. The timeline jumps forward. We don’t find out what really happened until the last chapter, and there is a twist that stays entirely true to the brutality, but which I would never have guessed.

It’s a tough read, based on a true story of a reform school with dozens of unmarked graves.

Highly recommended. Five stars
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LibraryThing member JanaRose1
When Elwood Curtis hitchhikes to college, the car is pulled over, and he is charged with car theft. He is sent to the Nickel Academy, a reformatory school for juvenile delinquents. At the school, students are beaten and sexually abused. Corrupt officials sell the school supplies to local merchants
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and farm the boys out as workers.

This was a well written and engaging story. The story line itself, based on a true story, was heartbreaking. The characters were very realistic and believable. My only criticism is that the present day story line was a bit jerky. Overall 4 out of 5 stars.
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LibraryThing member Nialle
A brilliant Black boy, in the wrong car, meets the wrong cop. A for-profit penal system puts him in a reform school run by abusers, a school that sells the Black boys' food and medical supplies in town, a school with a suspicious graveyard out back. What happens next is... an arc bending toward
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Colson Whitehead delivers a quietly powerful book about suffering that does not revel in suffering. Instead, the dual story lines describe keeping soul in a broken world, and despite inevitable sorrow, it is a book that leaves the reader wanting the hero to embrace the person he has become.
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LibraryThing member setnahkt
A fictionalization of events at the Dozier School for Boys in Florida – renamed here the Nickel School for Boys. It’s the 1960s; the focus characters are Elwood Curtis and Jack Turner. Elwood is a studious young man, destined for college but imprisoned for the bad luck of being in the wrong
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place at the wrong time. Turner is a boy Elwood meets in prison; Turner both admires and mocks Elwood for his naiveté.

Conditions at the Nickel School are pretty horrible, and the matter-of-fact way author Colson Whitehead describes them makes them even worse. The boys are beaten and sexually abused. Food and school supplies intended for the school are stolen by the staff and sold; the “community service” the boys are supposed to be performing is instead work for the administrators and board of directors of the school.

The account is fictional, and it’s probably true that not every single horror described at the fictional Nickel School actually occurred at the actual Dozier School. But it’s a safe bet all of them occurred at similar places.

The dénouement is as shocking as the rest of the novel; spoilers forbid describing it here. This is a good book about a bad subject; recommended.
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LibraryThing member charl08
Contains Spoilers!

"Is that what normal husbands do - buy flowers for no reason? All these years out of that school and he still spent a segment of his days trying to decipher the customs of normal people."

A brilliant fictional account of a real scandal: abuse in juvenile detention in the US. Elwood
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is a bookish boy who is doing well despite his parents leaving him, second rate schooling and Jim Crow.

Given the promotion for the book it comes as no surprise that he is thrown into detention and must try to learn how to survive. He finds that his law abiding, hard working approach which served him so well in school and in a part time job is absolutely no protection within Nickel: being clever is of no interest, the system wants the boys cowed and productive (as their labour is highly profitable). Boys are imprisoned for offences that add up to being children, or being poor. One of the reasons the institution can run is the willful ignorance of those outside, who see the boys as unimportant and are happy to benefit from the way the institution is run.

The twist at the end completely got me, I was reassuring myself with the thought that this lovely boy survived such a terrible experience and made it out the other side, and instead was shocked to find that in fact he was another victim in the graveyard.

I was impressed at how Whitehead showed the long term impact of the abuse on the boys as they became adults: it would have been easy to dwell on the physical abuse but he shows the psychological effects as well as the way there is pressure on survivors to "move on" from their experiences.
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LibraryThing member pdebolt
This novel will break your heart, especially since it is based on factual accounts of the Dozier School for Boys in Florida in the 1960s. It is run by a group of racist sadists and pedophiles who abuse their charges in every way imaginable while embezzling money meant for the boys in their
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Elwood Curtis is a straight-A student looking forward to college when he is apprehended riding in a stolen car with a stranger who gave him a ride to his college campus. Raised by a loving, law abiding grandmother when his parents abandoned him, his views of justice are betrayed when he lands at the Nickel Academy. He believes totally in the MLK doctrine, and has lived his life abiding by it until his untimely incarceration. Even at his darkest hours, Dr. King's words inspire and motivate him. Elwood soon understands that his dreams of a college education and a meaningful life are not to be unless he can escape. Elwood represents all the boys who were sent there. Their potential was forever lost when survival was their goal. These lives mattered, and no one seemed to care. The ending is particularly poignant.
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LibraryThing member gbelik
I didn’t think this book was as creative and original as The Underground Railroad. Still a good story well told, but I was not so excited by it.
LibraryThing member Beth.Clarke
As heartbreaking as this story is to tell, Whitehead is emphatic about the Dozier School for Boys in Mariann, Florida as told through the fictional school, Nickel. He balances the heartbreaking tales of racism and abuse with words from MLK. Even with the cruel tone of the novel, there is empathy
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between friends which is most evident in the ending. One of the best books I've read in 2019. It will be appreciated many many types of readers and will undoubtedly gain literary recognition.
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LibraryThing member cdyankeefan
This is simply amazing.based on a true event Elwood is a young black man living in the 1960s south during the era of the Jim Crow laws. The simple act of accepting a ride to attend a college class changes Elwood’s life forever. Sentenced to the Nickel reformatory Elwood is befriended by Turner
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who helps him navigate the schools social hierarchy. The writing is exquisite with sentences that will remain with you for a long, long time
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LibraryThing member Beamis12
Tallahassee, Florida, 1960's and Elwood a young black boy has big plans. He believes MLK that change is coming soon, that non violence and forgiveness with eventually free their people. Allow them the same rights as whites. But, this is the Jim Crow south and Elwood, with a belief in his bright
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future, will find himself in the wrong place, at the wrong time. Sent to the Nickel Academy, said to be a place that straightens out those on the wrong place. As Elwood tries to survive in this hellish place, mistakenly called a school , his idealistic beliefs are beyond challenged.

This is a difficult book to read. Not because of the writing but because the subject is a horrible one. What happens to the boys in this school is hard to process, hard to understand. How could do many evil people be in the same place at the same time? How could they all go along with what was happening there, whether they participated or not. The chapters alternate between the present and the past. Scenes are not dwelled on, not described to the limits, but a sense of dread permeate this novel. A twist at the end that I did not see coming.

So why read this? Well,it was based on a real school, on real boys that this happened too. The author explains why he wrote this at books end. My reasons for reading are the same. These boys and what happened to them deserve to have their story told. They deserve to have people know what they allowed to happen to them.
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LibraryThing member mzonderm
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
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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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LibraryThing member kayanelson
A very powerful book. I also read the Underground Railroad which was a long book vs this short one. I think I may have preferred this book as it packed a powerful message in few words. It is sad--both the events and the thought that things like this really did happen.
LibraryThing member Cariola
It may be Tallahassee in 1962, but Elwood Curtis, an African-American teenager, has a dream. He believes that if he works hard, follows the rules, and stays out of trouble, he can make a success of his life. Elwood is an excellent student and his high school English teacher helps him to apply for a
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program that allows worthy scholars to enroll in classes, he feels that his dream is within his grasp. But an innocent mistake puts him in the wrong place at the wrong time, and Elwood finds himself sentenced to serve time at The Nickel Academy, a “reform” school for juvenile offenders. Even here, he believes that he will earn an education and, by following the rules, an early release, but he soon learns the brutal reality. Boys at Nickel are sexually abused and beaten by staff members; those taken to “the White House” are severely beaten, and some of them disappear, their families told that they have run away. The only education Elwood receives is in cheating and grifting as he and other boys are forced to help corrupt staff members deliver food and supplies stolen from the school to local store owners. Still, Elwood believes in the teachings of his role model, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., especially in the power of love to defeat hate over time.

Whitehead divides the novel into three parts. Part One tells Elwood’s story up until the time of his arrest, and Part Two focuses on his life at The Nickel Academy. I have to admit that, initially, I was a bit confused by Part Three, which spans decades from the 1960s to the early 20th century, jumping back and forth and with secondary characters moving in and out of the narrative. But Whitehead sorts everything out near the end. (I can’t really say more about this without giving away too much—just trust me.) As usual, the writing is powerful, and the characters are both unique and realistic. This is an important book, not only for the history of the Jim Crow South that it portrays but for its relevance to our own time. It’s hard to read Elwood’s story without bringing to mind recent episodes of racial profiling, particularly in the law enforcement community, and the fact that racism is alive and thriving in the US today.

Overall, for me, The Nickel Boys doesn’t quite reach the level of , but it is an important and engaging novel, and I highly recommend it.
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LibraryThing member miss.mesmerized
Elwood Curtis has done everything right: he is diligent, reliable in his after school job and he eagerly follows this charismatic preacher named Martin Luther King. When his teacher recognizes his intellect and promising future, he helps him to attend college courses. Yet, fate didn’t want his
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life to turn out like this and being black even after the Jim Crow laws meant that there are certain roads not to be travelled. Thus, instead of learning for college, Elwood find himself in Nickel Academy, a juvenile detention centre. He doesn’t fit in the group of delinquent and illiterate boys but he has to be what the supervisors see in him and either he plays by the rules or he gets to know the other side of Nickel, the one that is hidden and buried and will only be excavated half a century later.

“The Nickel Boys” undoubtedly is one of the most awaited novels of 2019. After his tremendous success with “Underground Railroad” and winning the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction and the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, expectations ran high for his next book and there is no denying: Colson Whitehead surpassed what I had anticipated. Another tragic story that needed to be told, narrated in a gripping and heart-breaking way that leaves emotionally exhausted.

Institutions like Nickel Academy were a reality not only in the US but also in Europe. Establishment for boys whom nobody cared for or missed were the ideal place for abuse and maltreatment of every kind and where, under the disguise of pedagogy and good-will, the most horrible atrocities took place. It is not only the fact of bringing this piece of eagerly forgotten history back to our mind why Whitehead’s novel is so important and relevant, first and foremost, he masterly narrates how a young boy could become an innocent victim of the circumstances without the least hope of every getting justice or at least an apology for the wrong that has been done to him.

Apart from this, this story – even though it is fictitious – underlines that it takes people who stand up for their ideals, who endure hardship and injustice in order to make a change. We can see these people in the news every day and all of them deserve our support. Taking into consideration the current state of the world, we surely need more Elwoods who fearlessly fight for the right cause.
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LibraryThing member Sheila1957
This is one time I cannot give a short synopsis of the book because I would give the story away. I didn't know what to expect as I opened the book but I read the majority of it in one afternoon. The Nickel Boys is well written. I knew it would be a difficult book to read especially since I have
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been reading a lot of non-fiction lately about the prison system and the Jim Crow laws. I expected it to be more graphic than it was. It is different from Mr. Whitehead's The Underground Railroad--no magical realism in sight. I am still absorbing so much of it as I write this. It is a powerful piece of writing and should be on everyone's list to read sooner rather than later.
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LibraryThing member SamSattler
The Nickel Boys is Colson Whitehead’s first novel since the immense success he had with The Underground Railroad. That one won six major literary prizes, including a National Book Award for Fiction in 2016, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2017, and the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction
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in 2017 – not to mention also being longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2017. A lightning bolt like that one is, of course, unlikely ever to strike Whitehead again, but The Nickel Boys is an outstanding novel, and its two main characters are memorable ones.

Elwood Curtis, a young black boy growing up in the Jim Crow era Tallahassee of the early 1960s, lives alone with his grandmother because a few years earlier his parents left him behind like an abandoned piece of furniture when they decided to leave for California in the middle of the night. They didn’t even wake the boy up to say goodbye. But with his grandmother’s guidance, Elwood has done so well that he is now a high school senior who will soon be attending college. However, even hard work cannot always compensate for simple bad luck, and because of one innocent mistake, Elwood is sentenced to a juvenile reformatory known as the Nickel Academy before he ever makes it to the college.

At first, Elwood thinks he may have gotten lucky in being assigned to Nickel because there are no walls around the facility and daily classroom instruction is provided for all of the reformatory’s inmates. He is shocked, however, when he finds that the boys in his class are struggling with the same first-grade primers that he mastered a decade earlier. The reality of the Nickel Academy is that it is staffed by a group of racist predators who seem to enjoy nothing more than beating and sexually abusing the boys under their supposed care. The academy is as segregated as any part of the Jim Crow South, and anything designated – dormitories, the mess hall, classrooms, books, uniforms, food – for use by its black population is definitely second class in comparison to what the white inmates receive.

Elwood knows, though, that if he just stays out of trouble and does everything asked of him, he will be able to earn an early release from Nickel. And that’s exactly the plan he sets out on right up until the moment he rashly decides to defend a smaller boy being bullied by three or four much larger thugs. Now labeled a troublemaker, Elwood learns firsthand what happens to those boys who are whisked away for punishment in the middle of the night – some of them never to be seen again. Only a few months before his incarceration, Elwood discovered the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, and now he relies on King’s message of non-violent protest and perseverance to get him through his roughest days.

But as Elwood learns the hard way, if he is going to survive his time in Nickel, he will need more help than mere words will ever be able to provide. He needs a friend he can trust, someone who will watch his back in an environment where neither staff nor fellow academy inmates should ever be trusted. That friend is Jack Turner, a less academic but more skeptical and worldly boy who understands exactly what is a stake in Nickel Academy and needs a friend of his own.

According to Whitehead, The Nickel Boys is based on the Dozier School for Boys that operated in Marianna, Florida, for 111 years before it was finally shut down. The author uses much of what he learned about the brutality of the Dozier administrative staff in his depiction of what Elwood and others endure at Nickel Academy. Whitehead’s message, other than his reflection on life in the Jim Crow era, is that even those who managed to survive incarceration in places like Dozier and Nickel had their lives forever warped by the experience. Few of these boys managed to become the men they otherwise would have been – and for the most part, no one was ever punished for what they did to them.
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LibraryThing member Alphawoman
Oh hell no! Tears pouring out of me at the end.

I will not spoil it but this book is an absolute must read. Very applicable to the underlying climate of society today.

You will come away moved and you will have come away with a different perspective.
LibraryThing member Lauranthalas
Welcome to the Nickel Academy, a version of hell in the form of a reform school located in Florida. Elwood Curtis is a bright kid that believes in the words of Martin Luther King Jr. After his parents abandoned him, Elwood was raised as a “good boy” by his grandmother. Elwood is about to take
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classes at a local black college but soon that will change. Being a black boy in the Jim Crow South in the 1960s, an innocent mistake sends him to Nickel Academy where they provide “physical, intellectual and moral training” so the boys will become “honorable and honest men.”

Even though this is a shorter book, Colson Whitehead packs a punch. Rich with detail and beautifully written, The Nickel Boys will leave you horrified.
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LibraryThing member nivramkoorb
This book is a fictionalized version about Dozier School for Boys in the panhandle section of Florida. This reform school operated with impunity for 100 years treating black and white boys with cruelty but more on the black side. Whiteside tells the story through eyes of Elwood Curtis a 16 year old
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black boy doing all the right things who through the injustice of the 1960's Jim Crow south ends up in Nickel Academy(Fictionalized Dozier Academy). He tries to follow the way of Martin Luther King but soon encounters the brutality of Nickel Academy. Eventually he connects with street smart Turner who knows how to do what you got to do to survive. Whiteside's book is a short 225 pages and though the topic is brutal he spares the reader much of the details. This is an important book to read and though it does not contain the previous creativity that Whiteside displayed in "The Underground Railroad", I strongly recommend this. One of our best authors .
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National Book Award (Longlist — Fiction — 2019)
Pulitzer Prize (Winner — Fiction — 2020)
Kirkus Prize (Finalist — Fiction — 2019)
Audie Award (Finalist — Best Male Narrator — 2020)
LA Times Book Prize (Finalist — Fiction — 2019)



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