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The Nickel Boys

by Colson Whitehead

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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3,2511843,485 (4.24)326
In this bravura follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize, and National Book Award-winning 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.… (more)
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English (168)  Catalan (4)  French (4)  Dutch (3)  German (1)  Spanish (1)  All languages (181)
Showing 1-5 of 168 (next | show all)
Well-constructed and plotted. Emotionally harrowing; I'm glad it wasn't longer honestly. ( )
  fionaanne | Nov 28, 2022 |
An emotionally difficult read, this novel was Whitehead's second Pulitzer Prize winner. I am very glad to have read this powerful story. It was wrenching, yes, but not unrelentingly so; it had an affirmative ending, and a sneaky twist that I suspected just a few pages before it was revealed. Dickens's orphans have nothing on the students of the Florida Industrial School for Boys, a/k/a Nickel Academy, a reform school where the slightest departure from the rules can result in beatings, solitary confinement, or a trip "out back" from which there is no return. From the outside, this institution looks serene, well-tended and not at all forbidding. The students perform community service, put on shows which are attended by the public, and an annual Christmas fair that draws visitors from across the panhandle of the state. Behind the scenes, there is cruelty and corruption without sanction or consequence to the perpetrators, and the victims are almost exclusively black. The most horrifying part of the story is that it is grounded in fact, and that thousands of young lives were lost or irreparably damaged in the actual school that provided Whitehead's model for Nickel. The real-life institution continued to operate well into the 21st century despite repeated investigations into charges of abuse. ( )
  laytonwoman3rd | Nov 8, 2022 |
Set mostly in the 1960s in the Jim Crow American south, two black teens struggle to endure their time at an abusive reform school. The two young men, Elwood and Turner, approach life from different perspectives. Elwood is an idealist, inspired by Martin Luther King’s eloquent speeches about dreams and a brighter future. Turner is a cynic, disillusioned and angered by his experiences.

The following illustrates these conflicting points of view in one character’s inner dialogue:
“The world had whispered its rules to him for his whole life and he refused to listen, hearing instead a higher order. The world continued to instruct: Do not love for they will disappear, do not trust for you will be betrayed, do not stand up for you will be swatted down. Still he heard those higher imperatives: Love and that love will be returned, trust in the righteous path and it will lead you to deliverance, fight and things will change.”

The author packs considerable content into a compact, concise book of just over 200 pages. Whitehead’s narrative elicits feelings of unfairness at young men punished for crimes not committed, and outrage at the abusive treatment they receive. Themes include friendship, social justice, powerlessness, and institutionalized racism.

My only minor complaint with the book is one of the turns it takes near the end, where the tone is less optimistic than I had hoped, but the message is strong and relevant. Whitehead pays tribute to the dozens of children buried in unmarked graves, and those who suffered horrific abuse in a real institution in Florida on which this book is based.
( )
  Castlelass | Oct 30, 2022 |
Colson Whitehead’s novels are so good that I always like to try to devote a set period of time where I can just read them with minimal interruptions. The Nickel Boys was no exception (although I was down to the wire to finish it before I had to go out). It’s heartbreaking at times, but shows the goodness in some people.

Elwood Curtis was never meant to be the boy who ended up in reform school. But as a Black teenager in the American South of the 1960s, he was punished for a completely innocent mistake and treated harshly. Elwood is a quiet, industrious and smart young man determined to learn and assist wherever he can. That might be pointing out which magazines to sell at his afterschool job or in listening to the speeches of Dr Martin Luther King and taking part in local marches. His grandmother isn’t happy with the latter, but Dr King’s speeches are all Elwood has to hang on to when he’s sent to the Nickel Academy. The reader already knows that unspeakable torture has gone on at the school from a current day perspective of local university students discovering a secret cemetery. For Elwood, the school is an introduction to numerous horrors. The boys are separated by race, and much of the Black students’ food is sold on to local businesses for profit. The boys live in a run-down building and school is non-existent. It’s a shock and Elwood soon learns the hard way that intervening – even if it is the right thing to do – earns beatings. Elwood becomes friends with Turner, who is as cynical as Elwood is optimistic. With friends, Elwood’s time at Nickel becomes a little easier but his idealism may be his downfall…

The Nickel Academy is based on a real reform school in Florida, which makes the story hit even harder. The brutal beatings, the mistreatment of the boys and the corruption really come to life through Elwood’s innocent eyes. It’s difficult not to be angry and frustrated at this waste of a life, with Elwood marked because of his colour (he was on his way to early college classes for goodness’ sake)! The brutality of the story is lightened somewhat by moving to Elwood’s life post-Nickel, so the reader knows that he had a future although the past still haunts his days. There is a twist at the end which really shocked me and resonated the brutal nastiness of the Nickel Academy. How did this all happen and why was it allowed to continue? Colson Whitehead is fantastic at making the reader feel the emotions of his characters and revolt at the way they were treated.

The story is richly detailed, making to easier to envision Elwood’s life before and in Nickel. Unfortunately, it makes it easy to see the horror Elwood experiences and the incompetence and sadism of the Nickel staff. Overall, it’s well paced, including lighter moments in just the right places that don’t take away from the inhumanity experienced in the story. The Nickel Boys is another example of Whitehead’s brilliance as a writer.

Thank you to Hachette for the copy of this book. My review is honest.

http://samstillreading.wordpress.com ( )
  birdsam0610 | Oct 28, 2022 |
A heart-rending story with an ending that punched me in the stomach. Based on the Dozier school in Florida, many of the details in Whitehead's book were taken directly from the experiences of people who survived this "reform school." https://www.npr.org/2012/10/15/162941770/floridas-dozier-school-for-boys-a-true-...
  UnruhlyS | Oct 26, 2022 |
Showing 1-5 of 168 (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)
 

» Add other authors (14 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Whitehead, Colsonprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Jackson, JDNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Recoursé, CharlesTraductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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For Richard Nash
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Even in death the boys were trouble.
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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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In this bravura follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize, and National Book Award-winning 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.

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