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The Nickel Boys: A Novel

by Colson Whitehead

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1,5381018,163 (4.29)155
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLERONE OF TIME MAGAZINE'S 10 BEST FICTION BOOKS OF THE DECADE WINNER OF THE KIRKUS PRIZE LONGLISTED FOR THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD In this bravura follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize, and National Book Award-winning #1 New York Times bestseller The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead brilliantly dramatizes another strand of American history through the story of two boys sentenced to a hellish reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida. As the Civil Rights movement begins to reach the black enclave of Frenchtown in segregated Tallahassee, Elwood Curtis takes the words of Dr. Martin Luther King to heart: He is "as good as anyone." Abandoned by his parents, but kept on the straight and narrow by his grandmother, Elwood is about to enroll in the local black college. But for a black boy in the Jim Crow South of the early 1960s, one innocent mistake is enough to destroy the future. Elwood is sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy, whose mission statement says it provides "physical, intellectual and moral training" so the delinquent boys in their charge can become "honorable and honest men."In reality, the Nickel Academy is a grotesque chamber of horrors where the sadistic staff beats and sexually abuses the students, corrupt officials and locals steal food and supplies, and any boy who resists is likely to disappear "out back." Stunned to find himself in such a vicious environment, Elwood tries to hold onto Dr. King's ringing assertion "Throw us in jail and we will still love you." His friend Turner thinks Elwood is worse than naive, that the world is crooked, and that the only way to survive is to scheme and avoid trouble. The tension between Elwood's ideals and Turner's skepticism leads to a decision whose repercussions will echo down the decades. Formed in the crucible of the evils Jim Crow wrought, the boys' fates will be determined by what they endured at the Nickel Academy.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 that showcases a great American novelist writing at the height of his powers.… (more)

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Showing 1-5 of 98 (next | show all)
This book really packed a punch in a short amount of pages. When bodies are found at an old reform school - it takes Elwood back to his youth. Back to the Jim Crow era reform school (The Nickel Academy) in Florida that still gives him nightmares. From the racist staff, the hard manual labor, the merciless beatings, and the utter lack of hope it's something he's actively not thought about in decades. But when his old school makes national news for an unmarked graveyard filled with dead kids - Elwood knows he has to speak. Maybe after all these years he's finally found his voice. Alternating between his youth at the Nickel Academy and decades later when he's a successful businessman in New York; this story of race, redemption, hate, and hope will stick with readers long after the final page has turned. ( )
  ecataldi | Aug 6, 2020 |
After a case of 'wrong time-wrong place,' a promising young teenager is sent to a so-called reform school that exploits and abuses the children on its campus instead of educating and training them.

This book was worth the buzz. Colson's writing is superb and tight. He tackles difficult topics such as racism and the broken criminal justice system through a compelling story peopled with sympathetic characters. It is all the more heart-breaking as it is loosely based on real events.

There is a slight 'twist' at the end, which I somewhat predicted but still thought was done extremely well. The audiobook version is well-narrated by J.D. Jackson.

My only tiniest of complaints is that a lot of characters are introduced fairly quickly at the school; it was a lot to take in at once and retain. ( )
  sweetiegherkin | Aug 1, 2020 |
This is a heart-breaking look into the Jim Crow South during the Civil Rights movement (1962).
Elwood ends up in the infamous "Nickel" boys reform school. He meets and befriends Jack Turner. Together as friends they weather the horrific mistreatment of those in charge.

The resilience and hope displayed by the characters is ultimately uplifting, but the sad truth is that many bright futures were destroyed by the real-life counterpart of this school. The injustices and torment perpetrated by those trying to maintain power based on racial hatred needs to be acknowledged and discussed; this book is a perfect way to begin the conversation. ( )
  Chrissylou62 | Aug 1, 2020 |
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. ( )
  drbrand | Jul 22, 2020 |
I read this book in one sitting, excellent writing but a horrific story. Even sadder that so little has changed. ( )
  viviennestrauss | Jul 11, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 98 (next | show all)
The books feel like a mission, and it’s an essential one. In a mass culture where there is no shortage of fiction, nonfiction, movies and documentaries dramatizing slavery and its sequels under other names (whether Jim Crow or mass incarceration or “I can’t breathe”), Whitehead is implicitly asking why so much of this output has so little effect or staying power. He applies a master storyteller’s muscle not just to excavating a grievous past but to examining the process by which Americans undermine, distort, hide or “neatly erase” the stories he is driven to tell.
added by Lemeritus | editThe New York Times, Frank Rich (pay site) (Jul 14, 2019)
Even when he’s arrested on the flimsiest evidence and sentenced to Nickel Academy, Elwood clings to his faith that goodness will be rewarded, that the rule of law will prevail. The academy, as Whitehead presents it, is a place of well-groomed exteriors and encouraging principles — a place, if you will, like the United States at large... And what a deeply troubling novel this is. It shreds our easy confidence in the triumph of goodness and leaves in its place a hard and bitter truth about the ongoing American experiment.
added by Lemeritus | editThe Washington Post, Ron Charles (pay site) (Jul 9, 2019)
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Even in death the boys were trouble.
They were sent to Nickel for offenses Elwood had never heard of: malingering, mopery, incorrigibility. Words the boys didn’t understand either, but what was the point when their meaning was clear enough: Nickel. I got busted for sleeping in a garage to keep warm, I stole five dollars from my teacher, I drank a bottle of cough syrup and went wild one night. I was on my own trying to get by (Whitehead 81).
He had a date, now he needed a course of action. He felt rotten those first days out of the hospital until he came up with a scheme that combined Turner’s advice with what he’d learned from his heroes in the movement. Watch and think and plan. Let the world be a mob Elwood will walk through it. They might curse and spit and strike him, but he’d make it through to the other side. Bloodied and tired, but he’d make it through (Whitehead 93).
“It used to be worse in the old days,” Harper said, “from what my aunt says. But the state cracked down and now we lay off the south-campus stuff.” Meaning, they only sold the black students’ supplies. “We had this good old boy who used to run Nickel, Roberts, who would’ve sold the air you breathe if he could’ve. Now that was a crook!” (Whitehead 97).
The boy had been a reedy little runt when he got to Nickel and regularly punked out his first year until he learned to fight, and then he preyed on the smaller kids, taking them into closets and supply rooms—you teach what you’re taught (Whitehead 170).
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.
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