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The Nickel Boys

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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." 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 in 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 on to 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 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.


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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." 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 in 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 on to 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 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.

30 review for The Nickel Boys

  1. 5 out of 5

    Roxane

    I loved this novel. It is rich with detail, the plot twists in a really interesting way, the novel's structure is pretty brilliant and overall, this is an ambitious book that was really well executed. It is a coming of age story where that coming of age is warped by the atrocities of a school for boys in segregated Florida. As Elwood awakens to the civil rights movement, he is stripped of nearly all his rights. The more he understands the freedom he deserves, the less freedom he has and that jux I loved this novel. It is rich with detail, the plot twists in a really interesting way, the novel's structure is pretty brilliant and overall, this is an ambitious book that was really well executed. It is a coming of age story where that coming of age is warped by the atrocities of a school for boys in segregated Florida. As Elwood awakens to the civil rights movement, he is stripped of nearly all his rights. The more he understands the freedom he deserves, the less freedom he has and that juxtaposition drives this remarkable novel. At times, there were bits of prose that felt a bit, half-hearted, like filler until he got to the part he was more interested in. I would have given this five stars but Whitehead uses cement instead of concrete at least 7 times. I stopped counting after 7 times because it was too upsetting. Cement, water, and aggregates make concrete! Cement and concrete are not synonyms. Why do copyeditors not catch this? WHY? Anyway, great novel. People are going to love this one. BUT STILL! CEMENT IS NOT CONCRETE.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Nilufer Ozmekik

    Five blood freezing, rage boiler, pump squeezer, creator of several lumps on your throat, tear jerker, wake up call for all the injustice, unacceptable, unfair wrongdoings of the system stars! As soon as I closed the book, I just sat for at least two hours, paralyzed, did nothing, lost, confused, agitated, speechless, deeply, wholeheartedly, painfully sorry for the characters and all the suffering they had to endure. The worst thing is I didn’t read a fiction, I definitely read somet Five blood freezing, rage boiler, pump squeezer, creator of several lumps on your throat, tear jerker, wake up call for all the injustice, unacceptable, unfair wrongdoings of the system stars! As soon as I closed the book, I just sat for at least two hours, paralyzed, did nothing, lost, confused, agitated, speechless, deeply, wholeheartedly, painfully sorry for the characters and all the suffering they had to endure. The worst thing is I didn’t read a fiction, I definitely read something based on true stories. When you’re surrounded by your own choices which make you feel safe and careless and stick to your daily routine, reach out to your own comfort zone,you always tend to forget what happens at the outside! This book makes you remember it with a harsh, vulgar, ugly slap on your face! It makes you remember, outrageous, darkest shameful era of American history. It starts with Elwood’s story who is smart, who likes comic books so much, who is hard-worker and who has bright future by starting his college education. But everything changed as soon as he found himself a stolen car and accused wrongly as a thief, was sent to Nickel Academy, segregated juvenile, full of racism, torture, abuse, brutality. Elwood seems like a naïve who still thinks he could fight against injustice, corruption, repression in the school. As soon as he meets with cynical, smart, practical Turner who finds his partner in crime to survive in this jungle. You can find the great balance and mash-up of many produced, perfect stories of injustice in this book starting from “Kill a Mockingbird”, “Fruitvale Station”, “ Do the right thing”, “When They See Us”, “Shawshank Redemption”. If you could survive after reading brutal, aggressive, raw, raging things that the characters endured and fought against by sharpening their survival skills and have a good stomach to absorb the details you’re gonna read because there are so many truths hidden inside between the lines, this book is great way to face the other side of frightening human history that encourages you do something by raising your voice and stop acting like three wise monkeys by opening your eyes! The ending was another surprise and gut wrenching twist knocks you out! I wanted to finish my review with the remarkable words of Martin Luther King Jr’s quote: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly” Sigh… Sigh…Sigh… I think I will continue to sit, speechless, lost, shaken, angsty, sad…I need more time to absorb what I’ve just read!

  3. 4 out of 5

    Paromjit

    Colson Whitehead confirms his position as a phenomenal writer with this ostensibly heartbreaking and harrowing fictional storytelling, but which is informed by the darkest, most shameful, and ugliest period of American history explored through the lives of two young boys, set in the early 1960s Civil Rights time and all the horrors of the Jim Crow era in Frenchtown, segregated Tallahassee, Florida. Whitehead writes in understated and subtly nuanced prose, all the more effective in delivering its Colson Whitehead confirms his position as a phenomenal writer with this ostensibly heartbreaking and harrowing fictional storytelling, but which is informed by the darkest, most shameful, and ugliest period of American history explored through the lives of two young boys, set in the early 1960s Civil Rights time and all the horrors of the Jim Crow era in Frenchtown, segregated Tallahassee, Florida. Whitehead writes in understated and subtly nuanced prose, all the more effective in delivering its relentless and emotionally hard hitting punches that live on in the memory long after the reader has finished reading the book. Elwood Curtis is a bright and hardworking boy who lives with his beloved and strict grandmother who keeps him on the straight and narrow. He is caught by the fire and ideals of Martin Luther King's spiritual rhetoric and philosophy, and the fight for emancipation, believing in the equality of everyone. Excited by the thought of attending a local black college, the innocent Elwood's life is to fall apart when he is sent to the evil hellhole that is The Nickel Academy, a segregated juvenile reform school run by the unbearably cruel and sadistic Maynard Spencer. Elwood is to find himself in a racist place that has no interest in educating or improving the lives of the young men and where everyday life reeks of despair, misery and never ending horrors. Vicious brutality, sexual abuse, torture, repression, corruption, disappearing boys and death are rife, as Elwood struggles to maintain King's higher ideals of love, trust and freedom in the face of his and his friend, Turner's, realities. Turner has a more cynical and jaundiced picture of the world he sees, believing Elwood to be naive, as he plots and schemes, trying to avoid as much trouble as possible. The boys futures are to be shaped by their experiences and what they have seen, and Elwood is living in New York when a traumatic past that refuses to lie down returns into his life. The Nickel Academy is based on an actual reform school with its graveyard in Marianna, Florida, and interspersed in the narrative are quotes from the actual traumatised survivors of the place, along with quotes from King himself. Whitehead's novel is not only a scathing indictment of the likes of The Nickel Academy but of aspects of American society that allowed the existence of the reform school and the evil within, and as such bear responsibility for what happened there, but more pertinently, the political and social structures that legitimised such horrors, and the wider racism and discrimination. Whitehead shines a powerful light on American history, the shadows of which have never gone away, and which are undeniably present in our contemporary world. A superb novel that is a must read, of justice and injustice, and which I feel is destined to become a classic in the future. Highly recommended! Many thanks to Little, Brown for an ARC.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Elyse (retired from reviewing/semi hiatus) Walters

    Quick update: Meeting Colson Whitehead last night was great. He was so hilarious!!! I don’t think one person in the room expected him to be as funny as he was. A gorgeous man - funnier than any of us could imagine. He stayed away from the seriousness of the topics in his books. A little quote from Colson about book genres. Colson said there are only 2 types of books in the world: “those you like, and those you don’t”. Super man... Super author... Super fun listening to him speak. Audio Quick update: Meeting Colson Whitehead last night was great. He was so hilarious!!! I don’t think one person in the room expected him to be as funny as he was. A gorgeous man - funnier than any of us could imagine. He stayed away from the seriousness of the topics in his books. A little quote from Colson about book genres. Colson said there are only 2 types of books in the world: “those you like, and those you don’t”. Super man... Super author... Super fun listening to him speak. Audiobook…narrated by JD Jackson and Colson Whitehead. I’m seeing Colson Whitehead this week in Santa Cruz, at a book reading. With much to admire about his body-of-work’ as an author and humanitarian, it will be exciting to meet him. The “Nickel Boys”, is a ‘fictitious’ story -inspired by truth of what happened at the state-run institution, “The Dozier, Florida, School for Boys”- that took place at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. ‘The Nickel Academy’ was an establishment for boys in Tallahassee, Florida, in the 1960’s. It was a place where society didn’t much care what happened to the boys who attended. Some were orphans. Others considered juvenile delinquents - even for very minor wrongdoings. The horrific atrocities that took place was sickening disturbing....dehumanizing brutal unfathomable abuse…..including torture, rape, and murder. BEYOND AWFUL in other words!! We follow the story of young Elwood Curtis….his friend, Turner, and other boys as they describe their trips to the ‘White House’. The stories are agonizing. Elwood was a decent -better than decent - young man -with high marks in school with an idealistic outlook on human justice and racial equality — but one day -being in the wrong place at the wrong time got him sent to The Nickel Academy. Elwood, the kid who believed in justice, civil rights before most did — listened to Martin Luther King regularly, got a huge ugly awakening at The Nickel School. His dreams were shattered at the reform/abusive school. He struggled to understand all that was happening inside the walls of that institution. But it was the goodness and memories of his grandmother and MLK — that gave him hope to keep fighting for what was right. I appreciate the importance of learning all that I did…..not only from this book alone —but from reading a little more about the true horror stories at Florida’s Dozier school in Marianna, Florida….which just recently -and finally - closed its doors in 2011. Over the past decade hundreds of men have come forward to tell the gruesome stories of abuse and the terrible beatings they suffered. ‘Listening’ to this story felt flat and monotonous at times. I felt detached emotionally -- but intellectually I was appalled. The writing was beautiful — but I also felt detached from it (through listening anyway) — Then I debated the question: “was this detachment best for this story?” Was it intentional? -or was it me? Part of me thinks yes — part of me thinks no —to both questions. I hope to resolve this issue for myself after listening to Colson speak more about this book. I have a hunch that I’ll connect with the physical book more than I did the Audiobook— and/or connect with things differently after listening to Colson Whitehead speak this coming Thursday night. I’m looking forward to meeting him -hearing him speak -very much!! Thanks to my friend Margie for lending me her Audiobook — so I didn’t have to show up blind at the book reading this week.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Brandice

    True to form, Colson Whitehead delivers another well-written, deep story that while incredibly devastating, deserves to be told. The Nickel Boys is fictional account based on the true, horrifying Dozier School for Boys in good ol’ Florida, which Whitehead references at both the beginning and end of the book. ”You can hide a lot in an acre, in the dirt.” I was immediately a fan of Elwood, the main character, a virtuous teenage student, following rules, respecting authority, and admiring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. E True to form, Colson Whitehead delivers another well-written, deep story that while incredibly devastating, deserves to be told. The Nickel Boys is fictional account based on the true, horrifying Dozier School for Boys in good ol’ Florida, which Whitehead references at both the beginning and end of the book. ”You can hide a lot in an acre, in the dirt.” I was immediately a fan of Elwood, the main character, a virtuous teenage student, following rules, respecting authority, and admiring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. En route to early college classes one day, Elwood finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time and ends up sentenced to Nickel Academy, a reform school for young men. There, he eventually becomes friends with another boy, Turner, who calls him out for being so naive. The boys attempt to keep their heads down, and do the work required of them in order to hopefully avoid harm and leave sooner rather than later. Parts of the story flash forward to several years post-Nickel, and the ultimate outcome was not what I had expected. A book that is tough to read given the grim subject, but one that needs to be shared. Infuriating and tragic, The Nickel Boys is a small but powerful book that packs a punch.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Chaima ✨ شيماء

    The thought of this book stirs up a pain so sharp it almost seems my flesh lay open. There is so much I can’t figure out how to say in words right now. My heart feels as raw as a burn; a feeling made all the more resonant by the realization that the story is inspired by true events, that it captures between its page the remembered violence of America's history—fathomless and ugly. Colson Whitehead refuses to do their reader the dishonor of the lies, the comfortable omissions, and I'm The thought of this book stirs up a pain so sharp it almost seems my flesh lay open. There is so much I can’t figure out how to say in words right now. My heart feels as raw as a burn; a feeling made all the more resonant by the realization that the story is inspired by true events, that it captures between its page the remembered violence of America's history—fathomless and ugly. Colson Whitehead refuses to do their reader the dishonor of the lies, the comfortable omissions, and I'm glad for it. A must-read.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Beata

    Before starting this novel, I had read several interviews with Colson Whitehead, and reading them added to my understanding of THE NICKEL BOYS. Mr Whitehead chose to write about a piece of history which even he had known nothing about before 2014: a reform school for boys which operated for decades and where children were treated with cruelty and brutality. A deeply disturbing and shocking novel about two black boys in the 1960s who are sent to the so-called reform school, The Nickel Academy, wh Before starting this novel, I had read several interviews with Colson Whitehead, and reading them added to my understanding of THE NICKEL BOYS. Mr Whitehead chose to write about a piece of history which even he had known nothing about before 2014: a reform school for boys which operated for decades and where children were treated with cruelty and brutality. A deeply disturbing and shocking novel about two black boys in the 1960s who are sent to the so-called reform school, The Nickel Academy, who become friends and who undergo massive, horrific psychological and physical abuse during their stay there. THE NICKEL BOYS is not a long novel, but it does comprise a lot of anger, helplessness, pain and despair. I am certain I will reread this novel again, for its intensity and narration. This is not a novel that leaves a reader indifferent …

  8. 4 out of 5

    Marchpane

    A world of injustice or the truer, biding world? The Nickel Boys melds When They See Us with The Shawshank Redemption and Colson Whitehead’s faultless instincts as a novelist. Some books are 5 stars because they strike a chord with your own specific reading tastes; some are 5 stars because they are so good everybody should read them. This book is firmly in the latter category. The Nickel Boys is about a reformatory school for boys (effectively a prison) during the Jim Crow years, based on a real/>The/> A world of injustice or the truer, biding world? The Nickel Boys melds When They See Us with The Shawshank Redemption and Colson Whitehead’s faultless instincts as a novelist. Some books are 5 stars because they strike a chord with your own specific reading tastes; some are 5 stars because they are so good everybody should read them. This book is firmly in the latter category. The Nickel Boys is about a reformatory school for boys (effectively a prison) during the Jim Crow years, based on a real-life institution and the horrendous abuses that took place there. Whitehead treats this material with care – it is a finely calibrated balancing act that conveys the truth of what occurred in such places, without resorting to shock value or stepping over the line into gratuitous detail. This is a novel that achieves its emotional resonance not through explicit brutality, but by making the reader fall in love with its characters. We follow Elwood Curtis, a sweet kid, diligent, bright, aspiring to a college education. His misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time (‘wrong’ for an African-American boy in 1960s Florida, wrongness being relative) lands him at The Nickel Academy. There Elwood befriends the streetwise and cynical Turner, whose personality contrasts starkly with his own. Nevertheless, they form a life-long bond, their destinies forever intertwined. At Nickel, Elwood struggles to reconcile a self-preservation instinct with his idealistic streak: he knows the best way to survive is to keep his head down but at the same time his conscience compels him to emulate his heroes in the Civil Rights movement, to make a stand. With nuance and delicacy, the novel explores this impossible paradox of trying to resist an oppressive power structure while living within it – any form of activism is at the risk of one’s own life. Whitehead’s prose style here is deceptively plain. Economical and direct, this is the kind of writing that belies its own sophistication and makes this a very accessible read (still not an 'easy' one, due to the subject matter). The cadence and tone evoke an earnestness and sense of innocence (or perhaps, naïveté) that captures the spirit of the story perfectly. It’s also quite a short book that, for its size, makes a mighty impression. The Nickel Boys is a novel with an enormous heart that’s sure to break yours. 5 stars.

  9. 4 out of 5

    D. St. Germain

    (revised review - 5 stars) “It was quite a sight, all the boys, big and small, hustling in unified purpose, paint on their chins, the chucks wobbling as they ferried the cans of Dixie.” As part of their “community service,” The Nickel Boys paint buildings Dixie White, while avoiding sadistic and potentially fatal beatings delivered via a leather strap named Black Beauty. The boys, “cheaper than a dime-a-dance and you got more for your money, or so they used to say,” are in segregated juvenile detention in (revised review - 5 stars) “It was quite a sight, all the boys, big and small, hustling in unified purpose, paint on their chins, the chucks wobbling as they ferried the cans of Dixie.” As part of their “community service,” The Nickel Boys paint buildings Dixie White, while avoiding sadistic and potentially fatal beatings delivered via a leather strap named Black Beauty. The boys, “cheaper than a dime-a-dance and you got more for your money, or so they used to say,” are in segregated juvenile detention in Jim Crow Florida for crimes of malingering, mopery, incorrigibility, or being an orphan, just as the generations before them had served time for vagrancy, changing employers without permission, and “bumptious contact,” i.e. bumping into a white person or failing to step off the sidewalk to let a white person pass. The goal at Nickel Academy is to earn points and status rankings. However, the rulebook for points and status rankings has never been seen, because “like justice, it existed in theory.” Achieving status would mean the interred might get discharged from the Academy, fully “reformed,” rather than end up in an unmarked grave on the property. The main character, Elwood, is a serious and squeaky-clean young man who gets straight As and saves his report cards for the day they desegregate Fun Town, an amusement park in Atlanta advertising throughout the South that children with a perfect report card were guaranteed free admission (leaving out the implied “whites only” in the ad). He listens to a record of a Martin Luther King Jr. on repeat. With Civil Rights marches happening around him (it is 1962) and moved by the work of King, he strives to be a man of dignity. Still in high school, he’s chosen to attend college courses at Melvin Griggs Technical, the “colored” college just south of town. On the first day of classes, he accepts a ride from a stranger to get to Griggs, but the ride leads him straight to the Nickel Academy campus instead when it ends up the car is stolen. His entry beating to the Academy puts him in the school’s infirmary for weeks. The Nickel Boys is based on the accounts of the real life Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida, once the largest training and reform school in the country. Hundreds of boys died while wards of the state at Dozier, including from gunshot wounds, blunt force trauma, numerous broken bones, or being locked in solitary confinement when a fire broke out. Archaeology students at the University of South Florida have been working for years to uncover graves, document remains and try to trace them where possible to their families of origin. The Nickel Boys is a harrowing look at the trauma of juvenile prisons under Jim Crow as told through the fictional experiences of Elwood and his friend Turner. One will make it out and live to tell the tale; he’ll even go on to subconsciously name his business after the highest-level status rank could achieve at Nickel, the level that got you out of the academy: “Ace: out in the free world to make your zigzag way.” As characters, Elwood represents the strain of thought that believes social change is possible, that humans can aspire to and achieve a higher purpose together, while Turner, grounded in the current world, believes it is dumb and mean and one must learn to navigate that. Readers familiar with the convict leasing system won’t be surprised to find that the boys maintain the homes of those who serve on the board of the Academy in addition to the parks and public spaces of Eleanor, FL. Elwood tries to bring attention to both the corruptions and living conditions at the Nickel Academy, but “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,” and it would take another 50 years before the truth would come out about what had happened to young men there. Caption: From Library of Congress: Orphaned children and juvenile offenders could be bought to serve as laborers for white planters in many Southern states from 1865 until the 1940s. (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection, LC-D428-850) This is a "does the moral arc of the universe bend towards justice? Or not?" kind of book, and Whitehead himself doesn't come down on either side of the argument, rather showing how reality and aspirations weave and wobble between extremes, like Obama's remarks the day after Trump's election - "the path that this country has taken has never been a straight line. We zig and zag and sometimes we move in ways that some people think is forward and others think is moving back." Indeed, as Whitehead shows, it can be hard to be idealistic in the face of so much ugly history. "It was impossible, like loving the one who wanted to destroy you, but that was the message of the movement: to trust in the ultimate decency that lived in every human heart." The overarching sadness of this book is in the boys' potential, snuffed out. As Whitehead writes, “the boys could have been many things had they not been ruined by that place…. (they were) denied even the simple pleasure of being ordinary. Hobbled and handicapped before the race even began, never figuring out how to be normal.” The Nickel Boys is an intense take on the justice system in the Deep South during the turning points of the Civil Rights movement, and what that movement meant for individuals, connecting it to both the longer racialized history of the prison system in the South after reconstruction and the results the Civil Rights movement brought about in modern times. (For more on Southern justice after reconstruction, Oshinsky's Worse Than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice is an absolute mind-blower and seminal reading.) In the end The Nickel Boys is a lot to digest, mostly because the actual history is so heavy. I had mixed feelings about the seemingly dispassionate voice that Whitehead uses to describe much of the boys' experiences; it felt like an emotionally-removed telling of events that were actually quite intense. I initially gave it four stars because I found that approach unsettling. But Ron Charles convinced me that perhaps this approach was taken to avoid sensationalizing or glorifying the boys' pain over communicating the facts. At the book's conclusion, the story's survivor, now a successful small businessman, does get to dine at the restaurant his friend had always dreamed of seeing a black person eat in as a child. So while this post-Jim Crow era (and he poses the question - what do we call this period now, with so much unresolved?) hasn’t settled many or even most thorny issues around history and race in America, Whitehead does point to some progress ~ the same progress others point to when they write about Whitehead.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Diane S ☔

    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 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 pl 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 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.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Tammy

    The Florida Dozier School for Boys opened in 1900 and didn’t close until 2011. In this novel, it is renamed the Nickel Academy and the story is partially based upon true events that took place during the early 1960’s. Some of the boys, both black and white, had committed crimes while others didn’t have families or were runaways. The school didn’t provide an academic education or help of any kind. Instead, these young boys (ages 18-21) were subjected to brutal beatings, sexual abuse, and unimagin The Florida Dozier School for Boys opened in 1900 and didn’t close until 2011. In this novel, it is renamed the Nickel Academy and the story is partially based upon true events that took place during the early 1960’s. Some of the boys, both black and white, had committed crimes while others didn’t have families or were runaways. The school didn’t provide an academic education or help of any kind. Instead, these young boys (ages 18-21) were subjected to brutal beatings, sexual abuse, and unimaginable torture which led many to their deaths. Elwood winds up at the school by making an innocent decision with unforeseeable consequences. Being a southern town in the deep south during the 1960’s, the court’s decision was racist. Once incarcerated, Elwood finds friendship with fellow captive in the cynical Turner. The novel follows these boys as they try to survive the hellish prison. It is harrowing to know the abuses at this school continued into the 21st century. Whitehead is saying, “Look at this.” I looked and so should you.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Robin

    The Nickel Boys, a book about the horrors of a fictional reformatory school in 1960s Southern USA, was my first experience reading Colson Whitehead. I was excited to read this literary powerhouse, author of nine novels, one of which won the Pulitzer prize in 2017. As I dug into the book, I recognised right away that it is written very well - some might say flawlessly. In fact I wouldn't dare to critique it on that level. Its structure, pacing, etc are exemplary. Exemplary, yet, I was left The Nickel Boys, a book about the horrors of a fictional reformatory school in 1960s Southern USA, was my first experience reading Colson Whitehead. I was excited to read this literary powerhouse, author of nine novels, one of which won the Pulitzer prize in 2017. As I dug into the book, I recognised right away that it is written very well - some might say flawlessly. In fact I wouldn't dare to critique it on that level. Its structure, pacing, etc are exemplary. Exemplary, yet, I was left wanting. I wanted to hear the author's voice. Instead, I felt I was reading something (dare I say) generic, conventional, predictable, safe. It didn't feel original - I had an eerie feeling that I'd read a slightly different version of this before. Of course I hadn't but I was still plagued by this haunting feeling that these pages could have been written by any number of other people. I was oddly unaffected by the characters, as well as the plot twist which I registered with a relatively low level of emotion. I'm disappointed to feel this way. The subject matter is obviously important and I did appreciate the struggle the main character had in his attempts to live out the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr., to love his oppressors while suffering and waiting for victory. I understand the theme of beaten down, damaged, broken idealism. I can eat that shit up with a spoon. I wanted Colson Whitehead to use that theme to torture me, transport me, touch me, and teach me. It's hard to read a book with a worthy subject such as this one, but feel a lack of connection. Earlier this year, I read A Woman is No Man and had a similar experience. In that case, it was mainly due to a lack of writing finesse. In The Nickel Boys, the writing was all there, but for me, a sense of daring, a signature, a vital something was missing. Something that would have told me I wasn't just reading another book about racial atrocities in the 1960s, but one that scalds as I close the last page, one that is branded with the author's unique powers.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Tucker

    Words fail me in trying to express how good this book is. What I can say is go buy and read it immediately. I read it over a week ago and it is still running through my mind. I anticipate it will continue to do so for quite some time. The best book I’ve read this year, and I’ve read quite a few. A don’t miss read.

  14. 5 out of 5

    BernLuvsBooks (Mom to 2 Posh Lil Divas)

    5 Harrowing, Heartbreaking and Unforgettable Stars for The Nickel Boys To say that the abuse, corruption and violence in this book broke my heart and touched me to my core would be a grave understatement. Though it was a work of fiction - just knowing it was based on actual events which occurred at The Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, FL made it impossible not to think about all the boys that had suffered the kind of gruesome abuse I can not even fathom. The majority of the story is told from the 5 Harrowing, Heartbreaking and Unforgettable Stars for The Nickel Boys To say that the abuse, corruption and violence in this book broke my heart and touched me to my core would be a grave understatement. Though it was a work of fiction - just knowing it was based on actual events which occurred at The Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, FL made it impossible not to think about all the boys that had suffered the kind of gruesome abuse I can not even fathom. The majority of the story is told from the perspective of Elwood Curtis, an intelligent and idealistic boy who tries to live out the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King. He's the kind of boy you immediately open your heart to, an underdog you can readily root for to end up on top. Yet, I also found myself rooting for even the most jaded of Nickel's boys. No one deserves to endure the atrocities these boys were subjected to - no one! In short, this is the kind of book that must be read by everyone! If you haven't read it yet - what are you waiting for?

  15. 5 out of 5

    JanB

    Man’s inhumanity to man never fails to devastate me. Maybe my emotions are particularly raw this week but this book destroyed me. In a good way, as this is a story that needs to be told. The Nickel Academy is a true House of Horrors and the injustices done to the boys who resided there are mind-boggling. Although this is a piece of fiction, it is based on real events. The Nickel Boys is a fictionalized version of the Dozier School for Boys, i.e. Nickel Academy, which closed in 2011. T Man’s inhumanity to man never fails to devastate me. Maybe my emotions are particularly raw this week but this book destroyed me. In a good way, as this is a story that needs to be told. The Nickel Academy is a true House of Horrors and the injustices done to the boys who resided there are mind-boggling. Although this is a piece of fiction, it is based on real events. The Nickel Boys is a fictionalized version of the Dozier School for Boys, i.e. Nickel Academy, which closed in 2011. The beatings, rapes, torture, and even murder of students took place in our recent past. Unmarked graves have been found with remains that may never be identified. This is a story that will haunt me because it is true. How can this have happened? How have we not heard about this before now? I truly don’t understand and the life these boys led is is heartbreaking.. The story centers around Elwood, a boy who is unjustly sent to this “reform” school. He’s on track to go to college and is idealistic, believing in MLK’s message to respond to hatred with love. His friend Turner, a resident of this "school", is more jaded and finds Elwood naïve. This is what drives the plot. A short but powerful novel this is a must-read for everyone. It’s written in a way that is straight-forward, not gratuitous, which I appreciated. Bottom line: read this book. I’m glad this story is finally being told. The challenge is what do we do about it?

  16. 5 out of 5

    Michael

    Harrowing and bleak, The Nickel Boys takes place at the height of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, but the novel depicts an entrenched system of institutionalized racism that’s nearly as brutal and dehumanizing as slavery itself. The story follows Elwood, an idealistic young man preparing to attend college when a tragic misunderstanding lands him in an inhumane reformatory school, the Nickel Academy. The crux of the plot hinges on whether or not Elwood can survive the academy with his idealis Harrowing and bleak, The Nickel Boys takes place at the height of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, but the novel depicts an entrenched system of institutionalized racism that’s nearly as brutal and dehumanizing as slavery itself. The story follows Elwood, an idealistic young man preparing to attend college when a tragic misunderstanding lands him in an inhumane reformatory school, the Nickel Academy. The crux of the plot hinges on whether or not Elwood can survive the academy with his idealism in tact; in this, he acts as a symbol for the entirety of the Civil Rights Movement, which faced intensifying state oppression during the mid-60s. In neat, understated prose, Whitehead sensitively renders the dissolution of an era of political optimism. Bringing to life the horrors of Jim Crow, the novel considers the possibility of maintaining hope in the face of racist terror and violence.

  17. 5 out of 5

    sue

    This book gives you the biggest slap in the face reality check you’ll ever want to experience. This is fiction based on fact. I really don’t think I’d have survived for long in these times of black (coloured) vs white folk. I just see people. I don’t see race, creed, religion or any diversity. Just people. Good or bad and indeed in this book.....darn right evil. Based around 2 people primarily . Elwood is a kind ordainary guy. He’s clever, he’s smart and a h This book gives you the biggest slap in the face reality check you’ll ever want to experience. This is fiction based on fact. I really don’t think I’d have survived for long in these times of black (coloured) vs white folk. I just see people. I don’t see race, creed, religion or any diversity. Just people. Good or bad and indeed in this book.....darn right evil. Based around 2 people primarily . Elwood is a kind ordainary guy. He’s clever, he’s smart and a hardworking guy. But one day, wrongly, he gets arrested for stealing an already stolen car. He’s sent to Nickel Academy. There is segregation between whites and blacks. Abuse, sexual abuse, torture in the most inhumanly way. Elwood is quite naive until he meets a person who will help him, actually they help each other. We all know the history of racism but we don’t actual “know” it and even if we did through family or books etc did we pain over it afterwards? You definitely will do after reading this. It’s as hard hitting as walking on a bed of nails. The writing is superb. The events are difficult to read. I was left with the ending being a blow, it knocked my socks off. I sat ages talking about what I’d just read to my hubby. I needed to ‘get it out there’ to hear myself talk about what I’d jus read. To clarify and to clear my mind.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Read By RodKelly

    In Colson Whitehead's latest historical masterpiece, a horrific, real-life reform school for boys in Florida is fictionalized as The Nickel Academy, a century-old institution where teenage boys, black and white, are sent for the slightest crimes: truancy, petty theft, "disrespecting" a white person, or even the crime of being abandoned by their parents. Extreme abuse, rape, racism, and brutal murder are ruling principles, and the only way to escape is to run away or suffer death at the hands of In Colson Whitehead's latest historical masterpiece, a horrific, real-life reform school for boys in Florida is fictionalized as The Nickel Academy, a century-old institution where teenage boys, black and white, are sent for the slightest crimes: truancy, petty theft, "disrespecting" a white person, or even the crime of being abandoned by their parents. Extreme abuse, rape, racism, and brutal murder are ruling principles, and the only way to escape is to run away or suffer death at the hands of the sadistic school administrators. The story is narrated by Elwood Curtis, an ambitious young black man who idolizes Dr. King, looking to his great words as a guide for his own way of existing in the world. He is on his way to college when he finds himself at the wrong place at the wrong time and has his path to success derailed when he lands in the snake-pit that is Nickel Academy, a place which breaks down all of the ideals he held so dear, leaving him to face the ugliness of the world and its random system of undeserved violence and punishment. He becomes close with another resident named Turner, who tries his best to rid Elwood of his infallible naivete and belief in the good of all people. The most brilliant thing about this novel is the writing and plot structure. Unlike many historical fiction novels, or novels based on true events, Whitehead doesn't spend hundreds of pages building up his setting, or dumping information on the reader. He goes straight into the horrific depths of the story, constructing a novel that shows incredible restraint and nuance. It is the ending that elevated this book from being great to being absolutely stellar and incredibly poignant! I was truly surprised by the revelations in the end, which totally clarified how brilliant and important the non-linear structure is for the story. This follow-up to the incredible accomplishment that is The Underground Railroad is another monumental work by a phenomenal and powerful artist!

  19. 5 out of 5

    PattyMacDotComma

    4.5★ “ ‘Sometimes they take you to the White House and we never see your ass again. . . . Your family asks the school what happened and they say you ran away,’ Turner said. . . . ‘It’s not how it’s supposed to be,’ Elwood said. ‘Don’t nobody care about supposed-to.’ ” Based on a real place, the Nickel Academy is a reform ‘school’ in Florida where young Ellwood accidentally finds himself in the early 1960s. He is a bookish boy who lives with his grandmother in New York City and prizes his album of D/>“ 4.5★ “ ‘Sometimes they take you to the White House and we never see your ass again. . . . Your family asks the school what happened and they say you ran away,’ Turner said. . . . ‘It’s not how it’s supposed to be,’ Elwood said. ‘Don’t nobody care about supposed-to.’ ” Based on a real place, the Nickel Academy is a reform ‘school’ in Florida where young Ellwood accidentally finds himself in the early 1960s. He is a bookish boy who lives with his grandmother in New York City and prizes his album of Dr Martin Luther King’s speeches. His parents took off for California, deserting him, and he wants to know what his place in the world could be, should be. He studies, works after school, is teased by those who find him a goody-goody, but later is amazed to discover there are others who are demonstrating. “‘Closer. At the demonstration, he had felt somehow closer to himself. For a moment. Out there in the sun. It was enough to feed his dreams.” He longs for “reform” but ends up in reform school instead. “‘Everybody’s here because they haven’t figured out how to be around decent people. That’s okay. This is a school, and we’re teachers. We’re going to teach you how to do things like everyone else.’” Yeah, right. But ‘teachers’ like this are pretty thin on the ground. Nickel doesn’t suffer just from the usual problems of juvenile detention. Its staff includes good ol’ boys who grew up with pride in pre-abolition South and still resent northern laws. “Their daddies taught them how to keep a slave in line, passed down this brutal heirloom. . . . The sons held the old ways close. The state outlawed dark cells and sweatboxes in juvenile facilities after World War II. It was a time of high-minded reform all over, even at Nickel. But the rooms waited, blank and still and airless. They waited for wayward boys in need of an attitude adjustment. They wait still, as long as the sons—and the sons of those sons—remember.” Keeping slaves in line involved whips, chains, confinement, starvation, and whatever other brutality those sons of their daddies could dream up when they took the boys to the White House, so-called for its white paint. And it didn’t differentiate between whites and blacks. Anyone who didn’t survive the beatings or was caught escaping ended up as Turner explained, never seen again. The whites and blacks are segregated, but Jaime gets shifted back and forth. His mother is Mexican, and he gets dark working in the sun, but sitting with the black boys, he stands out. I would say it is darkly funny, the way M*A*S*H was funny, but he’s just a boy. Ellwood’s friend Turner, from Houston, seems to have a strong sense of self and a way of fitting in wherever he is. He’s a bit wiser than the country boys, a cynic and a realist who doesn’t share Ellwood’s hopeful view of the future. Knows that nobody cares about “supposed-to”. Sadly, I wasn’t surprised. The story is too common, brutality too pervasive, and children are still the disposable playthings of men. The world is discovering and uncovering more massacre sites and mass graves and evidence of people left to die, from First Nations peoples to war zones (My Lai) to refugees. Colson Whitehead has exposed this part of American history in a voice that can’t be ignored. Ellwood is such a bright, earnest youth who deserved to make his mark in the world, and I think Whitehead chose a great way to bring this particular story to a close. Thanks to NetGalley and Little Brown/Fleet for the preview copy of this excellent book.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Meike

    Now Longlisted for the National Book Award 2019 This book equally moved and infuriated me - why can't we manage to finally render the attitudes discussed in this historical novel, well, historical? "The Nickel Boys" is a written monument to the black boys who - alone and helpless - were subjected to cruel and inhumane treatment in a so-called "reform school", and the perpetrators and enablers of the crimes they endured were the same kind of people who today shout "send her back" and "build the wall" while fl Now Longlisted for the National Book Award 2019 This book equally moved and infuriated me - why can't we manage to finally render the attitudes discussed in this historical novel, well, historical? "The Nickel Boys" is a written monument to the black boys who - alone and helpless - were subjected to cruel and inhumane treatment in a so-called "reform school", and the perpetrators and enablers of the crimes they endured were the same kind of people who today shout "send her back" and "build the wall" while flaunting their lack of intelligence, compassion and, above all, their lack of shame and self-respect (two words: caged kids). Based on true events that happened at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Florida during the Jim Crow-era, Whitehead's fictional characters stand for the real victims, giving them a voice, preserving and telling their stories - in short, Whitehead masterfully uses the potential of fiction to commemorate the past and the people who lived in it. The book's protagonist is Elwood Curtis, a young black man who is inspired by Martin Luther King and dreams of attending college. But in a classic combo of wrong place, wrong time and systemic racism, he ends up at the Nickel Academy, a reform school where black boys get viciosuly beaten, degraded, tortured, molested, raped, and, if the supervisors decide so, murdered. Elwood becomes friends with another boy named Turner, and tries to think of ways to get out of Nickel and, like MLK, to stand up in the face of injustice. This main narrative strand is interspersed with information about the destinies of different Nickel boys, both those who died at the school and those who survived, now physically free but trapped by traumatic memories. I will not give away more of the story, but the twist at the end and the epilogue of the book are absolutely fantastic. Unlike The Underground Railroad, this book employs no fantastical elements - in fact, Whitehead's storytelling is well-executed, but straight forward and highly accessible. This does fit the author's aim and reads smoothly, but it also gives the writing a rather traditional touch. Make no mistake, this criticism mostly relates to my personal taste (I love poetic riddles, twisted narrative approaches and experimental writing): This is not my favorite kind of storytelling, but for what it is, it is exceptionally well done, and it is obvious that the topic the author discusses is still relevant. So is Colson Whitehead really a "Great American Storyteller", and is this a "Great American Novel"? Yes and yes. This book is well-worth reading and I liked it a lot better than The Underground Railroad - let's see whether Whitehead will again dominate the award circuit.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Marialyce

    Perhaps reading this book would give one nightmares, horrible dreams about man's inhumanity to other people. Perhaps it would come as a slap in your face to know that this book although fictional has a pretty large basis for what is written and pointed out. Perhaps it is that we do need to be reminded of our history in all its forms, be they good or bad, for it is only through knowing our history that we can strive to improve the way we move forward. The book is The Nickel Boys and the story it Perhaps reading this book would give one nightmares, horrible dreams about man's inhumanity to other people. Perhaps it would come as a slap in your face to know that this book although fictional has a pretty large basis for what is written and pointed out. Perhaps it is that we do need to be reminded of our history in all its forms, be they good or bad, for it is only through knowing our history that we can strive to improve the way we move forward. The book is The Nickel Boys and the story it relates is one that needs to be told. “We must believe in our souls that we are somebody, that we are significant, that we are worthful, and we must walk the streets of life every day with this sense of dignity and this sense of somebody-ness.” I do remember learning about the way things were in the South in the mid twentieth century. Times were horrid for those whose skin color and poverty level did not match the general population. This book points to one place in particular, the Nickel School, a school for students fully devoted to segregation, Jim Crow, and the philosophy of keeping boys "in their place." To this environment a young boy is sent. Elwood is a dedicated young man, wanting to go to college, further his learning, and become someone his beloved grandmother would be proud of. However, this den of racism, sadism, and malice is the last place where the dreams of Elwood would ever be realized. The Nickel School is a place of sadistic cruelty, where despair and heartache lurks in the hallways and rooms leeching off the walls in the person of Maynard Spencer. A world of nightmares awaits Elwood, a boy who believes in the teachings of Martin Luther King. Elwood finds himself in a world where only sadism, racism, sexual abuse, torture, and the disappearance of boys to a place called the White House makes for a life of heinous and horrific times. How Elwood and another boy, Turner fare is the subject of this book that mesmerizes the reader with the evil that some did to others. This was a fascinating story, one that needed to be told especially since it is loosely based on a real reform school in Marianna, Florida called the Dozer School which closed in 2011. Interspersed throughout the story are real quotes from the boys, now grown to men, who spent time in this hell hole. There is also a graveyard that was dug up where many of the boys who had their life snuffed out were buried. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-... I couldn't help but think as I read of the viciousness and cruelty, that we need to be reminded of what has gone on in our history. It is often said we must know history in order that the errors and cruelty do not once again raise its heinous head. Today we see the bubbling once again of hate, fostered by social media, the newspapers, and the newscasts. We can feel what we once thought would never be, once again is making our country divisive and full of hate. It may not be, that in our future, we will ever find that peace that Dr King so hoped for us. My reviews can be seen here: http://yayareadslotsofbooks.wordpress...

  22. 5 out of 5

    Dean the Bibliophage

    “We must believe in our souls that we are somebody, that we are significant, that we are worthful, and we must walk the streets of life every day with this sense of dignity and this sense of somebody-ness.” Colson Whitehead possesses the dexterity and adroitness for writing about delicate subjects and historical periods of cultural and socio-political implication, whether this be freedom and slavery in the nineteenth century – The Underground Railroad was awarded the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction – or the civil ri “We must believe in our souls that we are somebody, that we are significant, that we are worthful, and we must walk the streets of life every day with this sense of dignity and this sense of somebody-ness.” Colson Whitehead possesses the dexterity and adroitness for writing about delicate subjects and historical periods of cultural and socio-political implication, whether this be freedom and slavery in the nineteenth century – The Underground Railroad was awarded the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction – or the civil rights movement, racial justice and violence in America. The Nickel Boys resurrects the Dozier School for Boys – a Florida reform school which faced accusations of violence, brutality and murder, with graves still being discovered today – and breathes air into the lungs of the book’s protagonists, Elwood Curtis and Turner, the former hopeful and the latter seemingly more cynical. “To think of those Nickel nights where the only sounds were tears and insects, how you could sleep in a room crammed with sixty boys and still understand that you were the only person on earth. Everybody and nobody around at the same time. Here everybody was around and by some miracle you didn’t want to wring their neck but give them a hug.” Whitehead transports readers to the hellish confines of the Nickel School, not merely bricks and mortar but the amalgamation of sights, sounds and smells capturing your imagination. Whitehead humanises through emotive narrative and poignant storytelling, characterisation providing a voice to articulate this unfamiliar tragedy of cruel oppression and racial segregation. And Whitehead refocuses the lens to remind readers how division and injustice continue to exist within society – not limited to African Americans – and that in other parts of our imperfect world behind closed doors another Nickel Boys novel is being written owing to the destructive forces of unpunished evil. “Problem was, even if you avoided trouble, trouble might reach out and snatch you anyway. Another student might sniff out a weakness and start something, one of the staff dislikes your smile and knocks it off your face. You might stumble into a bramble of bad luck of the sort that got you here in the first place.” In a book philosophising living and existing – the inspirational words of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the fight for justice resonate throughout its pages – Colson Whitehead has fashioned a story of vast importance with signature virtuosity established in The Underground Railroad. Just as John Steinbeck imaginatively wrote of fate and injustice in central California, Whitehead writes with similar realism about the southeastern United States. “Even in death the boys were trouble” – and even as you close the last page, they stay with you. Oh, boy, they definitely stay with you . . . © The Financial Times, 2019

  23. 5 out of 5

    Melki

    The state opened the school in 1899 as the Florida Industrial School for Boys. "A reform school where the young offender of law, separated from vicious associates, may receive physical, intellectual, and moral training, be reformed and restored to the community with purpose and character fitting for a good citizen, an honorable and honest man with a trade or skilled occupation fitting such person for self-maintenance." The boys were called students, rather than inmates, to distinguish them from The state opened the school in 1899 as the Florida Industrial School for Boys. "A reform school where the young offender of law, separated from vicious associates, may receive physical, intellectual, and moral training, be reformed and restored to the community with purpose and character fitting for a good citizen, an honorable and honest man with a trade or skilled occupation fitting such person for self-maintenance." The boys were called students, rather than inmates, to distinguish them from the violent offenders that populated prisons. All the violent offenders, Elwood added, were on staff. It's the early sixties, and the Civil Rights Act has been made the law of the land . . . but that doesn't change attitudes, or the treatment of black Americans in the Jim Crow South. Young Elwood, a straight-laced, studious boy planning to attend college, is falsely accused of a crime, and sent to the Nickel Academy. There his "physical, intellectual, and moral training" will consist of reading grade-school level textbooks, learning to kowtow to the monsters that run the place, and the most important lesson of all: You are a colored boy in a white man's world. This is a powerful, heartbreaking book, made all the more harrowing by the fact that it's based on a true story. If I had my way, it would be required reading in every school in this country. It'll undoubtedly be my choice for book of the year. Look at what they did to me, look at what they did to me.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Ron Charles

    “The Nickel Boys” draws its inspiration from incidents of abuse at the real-life Dozier School for Boys, a now-closed reformatory school in Florida that operated for more than a century. Though the facility opened with apparently good intentions to bring a more enlightened approach to the treatment of troubled and orphaned youngsters, it devolved into an underworld of torture, rape and murder. Just last month, Florida officials announced plans to search the campus for more bodies hidden in unmar “The Nickel Boys” draws its inspiration from incidents of abuse at the real-life Dozier School for Boys, a now-closed reformatory school in Florida that operated for more than a century. Though the facility opened with apparently good intentions to bring a more enlightened approach to the treatment of troubled and orphaned youngsters, it devolved into an underworld of torture, rape and murder. Just last month, Florida officials announced plans to search the campus for more bodies hidden in unmarked graves. Whitehead’s novel opens with a similar announcement about a state investigation into crimes once committed at a shuttered reformatory school called Nickel Academy. Archaeology students surveying the old campus have discovered an unmarked grave that had been “neatly erased from history.” The exhumed bodies exhibit “cratered skulls, the rib cages riddled with buckshot.” Attention from the national press is likely to postpone a real estate development of the land. “Even in death,” the narrator notes, “the boys were trouble.” Whitehead returns to that contemporary story line periodically throughout “The Nickel Boys,” but his real interest lies in what happened back in the 1960s. The hero of the novel is. . . . To read the rest of this review, go to The Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/entert...

  25. 5 out of 5

    Lark Benobi

    This novel hit me as relatively lifeless, and absolutely predictable. After getting to the last page and closing the book I discovered I had fallen into a kind of mourning. I missed the "Pre-Underground-Railroad" Colson Whitehead. I missed the author who wrote Zone One and The Intuitionist. Colson Whitehead is an author with a unique gift, and he belongs in a rarified group of unique, individualistic, contemporary black voices along with Percival Everett and Mat Johnson and Walter Mosley...authors whose creative imagination soars and sings, This novel hit me as relatively lifeless, and absolutely predictable. After getting to the last page and closing the book I discovered I had fallen into a kind of mourning. I missed the "Pre-Underground-Railroad" Colson Whitehead. I missed the author who wrote Zone One and The Intuitionist. Colson Whitehead is an author with a unique gift, and he belongs in a rarified group of unique, individualistic, contemporary black voices along with Percival Everett and Mat Johnson and Walter Mosley...authors whose creative imagination soars and sings, and who have the confidence to let their stories burst out all over the place, like a Jackson Pollock painting. With The Nickel Boys, Colson stays well inside the lines. And for that it disappointed me. If Ernest Gaines had written this novel I'd be singing its praises, because this is an Ernest Gaines kind of novel. But Colson Whitehead wrote this novel, and as a Colson Whitehead novel, it's a flop.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Lisa

    Once again Whitehead has taken me on a mind-blowing, heart-wrenching journey. The horrifying story of the fictionalized Nickel Academy (based on the Dozier School for Boys) is not a distant slice of history - it took place in my lifetime! The prose is clear and strong and every page is packed with foreboding. I was terrified for Elwood. I read this novel tensely at the edge of my seat - and still Whitehead took me somewhere that shocked me. Brilliant and electrifying.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Chris

    "The Nickel Boys" is haunting and heartbreaking, and had me turning the pages both because I cared so profoundly about Colson Whitehead’s magnificently drawn characters, and because I was raging at the appalling injustice he was chronicling. This is a beautiful book and an important book and, like all of Whitehead’s work, written with grace and beauty and a deep, remarkable imagination.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Bianca

    What's happening? Why was I bored by a book so many loved, especially since its subject should have affected me a great deal? The introduction was promising. The novel itself left me disconnected and detached, not to mention I had this nagging feeling that I'd read this story before. The writing was straight forward if I'm being honest, I expected it to be a bit more literary. The story is important, kudos to Whitehead for bringing it to our attention. My brain was, of course, horrified, bu What's happening? Why was I bored by a book so many loved, especially since its subject should have affected me a great deal? The introduction was promising. The novel itself left me disconnected and detached, not to mention I had this nagging feeling that I'd read this story before. The writing was straight forward if I'm being honest, I expected it to be a bit more literary. The story is important, kudos to Whitehead for bringing it to our attention. My brain was, of course, horrified, but my heart was only half melted. Another book I feel I should have loved but didn't.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Emma

    ‘Even in death the boys were trouble.’ The Nickel Boys opens with an unearthing of bones. In this physical evidence, held and photographed and catalogued, is an impossibility: denial. Cue shock and horror at this ‘revelation’, a ‘hidden’ past in the form of dead black boys. ‘Plenty of boys had talked of the secret graveyard before, but as it had ever been with Nickel, no one believed them until someone else said it’. Based on the brutal realities of the Dozier School for Boys, the horrors i/>‘Plenty ‘Even in death the boys were trouble.’ The Nickel Boys opens with an unearthing of bones. In this physical evidence, held and photographed and catalogued, is an impossibility: denial. Cue shock and horror at this ‘revelation’, a ‘hidden’ past in the form of dead black boys. ‘Plenty of boys had talked of the secret graveyard before, but as it had ever been with Nickel, no one believed them until someone else said it’. Based on the brutal realities of the Dozier School for Boys, the horrors in these pages are nothing less than truths recast. But first comes the hope. Elwood Curtis is a bright light, fired by Martin Luther King and the fragile opportunities for hardworking, intellectual young men just like him. Opportunities to get ahead or make a difference. Opportunities for education, like the chance to attend college classes he’s just been given. Except that dream is quickly extinguished when he accepts a ride in a stolen car. How quickly one life can be changed beyond all imagining. Just this one small choice, this life-changing action, this inescapable new direction, choked me with the injustice of it all. Proof that even if you do everything right, for some people you will always be wrong. The question is this: is hope worth it? Was there ever going to be a different way for Elwood in this place, in this time? This is the conflict that forms the fault lines of the novel, expressed through the characters of Elwood and his new friend at Nickel Academy, Jack Turner. Where one holds to the possibility of justice, idealistic in his hope that it is only ignorance not indifference (or even collusion) allowing the myriad abuses happening at Nickel to continue, the other understands that this is a broken world, one that has to be lived in and worked round, one not open to challenges or changes. How sadly relevant; the question as vital today as it was in 1960s America. This story is not just history, as the bones are not just archaeology. But how to respond? Perhaps the answer is in the ending, the two boys' fight for survival resulting in only one kind of freedom. Colson Whitehead’s last book ‘The Underground Railroad’ won a Pulitzer Prize (one of many accolades), but its narrative design distanced many readers from the story. Even so, the anticipation for his next offering has been deservingly eager. Whitehead is an author not afraid to tackle the black experience in a multitude of ways, but the straightforward, almost bare approach on display in this book is remarkably effective in revealing not only the effects of personal encounters with racism but the broader consequences of its underlying tenets. Much of this is due to the author letting the characters speak much more here, a raw act of being that needs no stylistic embellishment. While the ‘twist’ ending may be a deal breaker for some, it’s just another indication that the author has moved away from high-concept stylisation to something much more recognisable, popular, and perhaps mainstream. That’s not a criticism. If anything, the easy accessibility and directness of the language and style here highlights the everyday normality, the banal evil that feels like an emotional sucker punch. It’s the kind of writing that burrows a path straight to the heart. A powerfully affecting novel which offers insights about both past and present. It's unmissable fiction. ARC via Netgalley

  30. 5 out of 5

    Gumble's Yard

    Updated with new thoughts. Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” won both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book award and was longlisted for the Booker prize – but as well as its literary prize recognition it gained a number of nominations for Science Fiction prizes and won the prestigious Arthur C Clarke award. That book, in simple terms, told a familiar story in an unfamilar way. The sadly familiar story was of brutality on Southern American slave plantations. The unfamilar w Updated with new thoughts. Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” won both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book award and was longlisted for the Booker prize – but as well as its literary prize recognition it gained a number of nominations for Science Fiction prizes and won the prestigious Arthur C Clarke award. That book, in simple terms, told a familiar story in an unfamilar way. The sadly familiar story was of brutality on Southern American slave plantations. The unfamilar way was by turning the “Underground railroad” used to describe the route slaves took to escape, into a physical railway connecting cities and states with different variations on race relations. He used this Gulliver’s Travel style device to trace not just the history of black slavery in America, but to relate it to race relations across American history up to the present day, and to draw on other analogies including the Holocaust and even Slavery in Republican Rome. The author’s latest novel is perhaps best described as also examining the legacy of slavery and the practice of racism in America, but by doing the opposite - telling an unfamiliar story in a familiar way. The story is of a Florida based reform school Nickel, whose pupils or inmates, often sent there for minor offences, are subject to forced labour for the state (and via corruption for the staff of the school), savage beatings, rape, punishment cells and in some cases unexplained disappearances (believed to be after fatal beatings followed by burials in unmarked graves). Although white and coloured boys are sent to the school, they are strictly segregated and the coloured boys subject to particularly harsh treatment. Whereas Whitehead’s previous book relied on fantasy – what is particularly shocking about this book is that it is a very light fictionalisation of a real school – the Arthur G Dozier (or Florida) School for Boys - with a lot of the events and descriptions based on the recent testimony of victims. Perhaps even more shockingly the events portrayed are not from the 19th Century but the late 1960s. On one level I was shocked to not be aware of these practices – but Whitehead himself only became aware in 2014 and I think that the choice to make this at core a relatively conventional (by his standards) novel is simply because the story is one that simply needed to be told and further is deeply impactful without need for embellishment or a new literary perspective. Where the author does round out the story is in two ways. Firstly by bringing in the words and teachings of Martin Luther King and examining the challenge of living them in practice. The main protagonist in the story Elwood, starts the book listening repeatedly to a LP of King’s sermons and speeches and follows the Civil Rights movement passionately – plotting how he can get directly involved using his educational prowess. Already though he finds in an incident that doing what seems right and maintaining racial solidarity can lead to a clash. Later, just when he is on the verge of educational involvement, simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time (hitching a lift in a car which was stolen) leads to him being sent to Nickel. There he both witnesses and personally experiences racist brutality and stark injustice. He struggles to come to terms with how to forgive those oppressing him and by doing to resist their racist agendas. Even then he retains a belief in justice and is convinced that even if the boys cannot help themselves, others will come to their rescue when their plight is known (he imagines the National Guard taking over the prison). His views are contrasted with the more cynical and world weary Turner – the secondary character in the novel – who gradually befriends Elwood. The second is in a modern day framing device for the novel – examining, with a twist, the lasting impact of Nickel on the lives of those staying there and the gradual exposure of the practices in the 21st Century. This part of the novel (and the historic denouement that contextualises it) also shows what happens when cynicism is challenged by principle, as well as when idealism is confronted by reality. Through these two areas I think the author’s secondary purpose is revealed - to challenge the current generation with their reaction to racism: e.g. for the woke generation that the liberal use of hashtag and retweets may not equip them when they themselves are victims of institutional racism. Recommended. My thanks to Vantage for an ARC via NetGalley.

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