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.
Set in the Jim Crow south, in the early 60s, this powerful and haunting novel, follows Elwood Curtis, a black teen, abandoned by his 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.
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.
The book captures the injustice of the Jim Crow era through the eyes of a teenage boy who tries desperately to rise above it, only for the cultural and political undertow to pull him under and overcome him. It is based on the true story of the Dozier School and is written sparingly and compellingly without a word wasted.
I only knew vaguely about the Dozier School, but since reading the book became curious and have read more including some of the survivors' accounts. Those boys deserve to have their stories told and heard and I can't imagine a more honoring tell than Whitehead's book.
Though the time and setting of this story is specific and historically significant within the U.S., it's also a tribute to those people who are sparks of life even in darkness. People who live their lives - however brief and whatever their circumstances - with a principled stand that refuses to meet violence and injustice in kind and gives hope to others who live on to bear witness.
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.
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 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
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.
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 will bring tears to your eyes.
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.
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.
In The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead shares Elwood’s sad saga, as well as those of some of the other students at the school, most notably Jack Turner who becomes a friend and something of a mentor. Without question, this is a brutal, heartbreaking story, with little in the way of hope or redemption offered as solace. What makes it all the more harrowing is the fact that much of the story is true; in the Acknowledgments, the author notes that Nickel is based on the Dozier School for Boys in Florida where many of the incidents the novel chronicles actually occurred. I found that to be simply frightening and it definitely influenced my entire reading experience. Interestingly, Whiteside relates his tale with reasonably flat and matter-of-fact prose (despite an interesting twist near the end), preferring to allow the magnitude of the events speak for themselves. That choice made for a very effective story-telling device.
Given its subject matter, it would be difficult to say that I enjoyed reading this book. However, The Nickel Boys definitely taught me a lot about attitudes and actions in a time and place that, while ostensibly long ago and far away, seem like they could still occur in the here and now. Nevertheless, I was confused about how the author portrayed differences between the black and white student experience at the school. Beyond the segregated facilities, Whitehead makes it clear that black students received the worst of everything possible and likely suffered more degradation and physical abuse. This is curious since the Dozier survivor website he recommends to the reader contains the memory of a particularly gruesome whipping written by a white man; this remembrance appears to be the source of the account of the initial beating that Elwood endures. The point is that Nickel/Dozier was simply an evil institution run by vicious and self-serving people, which was true for everyone who had the misfortune to spend time there.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
Cousin Whitehead's follow up to The Underground Railroad is slighter but even more effective. He tells the story of two boys, Elwood and Turner, who meet while sentenced to the Nickel Reform School for Boys. Whitehead based his fictional story on the real Dozier School that existed in Florida for over a hundred years. When it was finally closed down, archeology students discovered an unmarked grave of bodies that have long since been unclaimed. From this disturbing history, Whitehead weaves the story of a bright, idealistic boy whose prized possession is an album of Martin Luther King's speeches. A young man of promise who gets in the wrong car while hitchhiking to school, who once inside makes the mistake of sticking up for a bullied child, who continues to apply Dr. King's tenets even under such atrocious bigotry. His story is coupled with that of another boy. "Elwood saw that he was always simultaneously at home in whatever scene he found himself and also seemed like he shouldn’t have been there; inside and above at the same time; a part and apart. Like a tree trunk that falls across a creek—it doesn’t belong and then it’s never not been there, generating its own ripples in the larger current. He said his name was Turner."
Turner tries to mentor Elwood on the ways to stay alive in this school and tries to save him from trips to the "White House ", where kids are said to be going for ice cream because the bruises come back in so many different colors.
This was an accomplished novel by one of the most important writers of our time. This one will stay with me and be recommended often.
The officer of the court was a good old boy with a meaty backwoods beard and a hungover wobble to his step. He’d outgrown his shirt and the pressure against the buttons made him look upholstered.
Lonnie’s wide bulldog face tapered into a bullet at his shaved scalp. He’d scrounged up a patchy mustache and had a habit of smoothing it with his thumb and index finger when calculating brutality.
The country was big, and its appetite for prejudice and depredation limitless, how could they keep up with the host of injustices, big and small. This was just one place. A lunch counter in New Orleans, a public pool in Baltimore that they filled with concrete rather than allow black kids to dip a toe in it. This was one place, but if there was one, there were hundreds, hundreds of Nickels and White Houses scattered across the land like pain factories.
A writer like Whitehead, who challenges the complacent assumption that we even fathom what happened in our past, has rarely seemed more essential.
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.
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.
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.
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.