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The Nickel Boys: A Novel by Colson Whitehead

The Nickel Boys: A Novel

by Colson Whitehead

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Showing 1-5 of 24 (next | show all)
After all the hype about this book, and after reading The Underground Railroad by this same author, I was expecting great things with this book. Unfortunately it didn't happen - not for me anyway. Fortunately it's a fairly short book, or I probably would have put it aside before I got halfway through. Yes, the subject matter is appalling, and very graphic. Yes, the book highlights the problems in the southern states in the late 1960's with segregation running rampant even after it was legislated to not be continued. There were enough good old boys and Ku Klux Klan members to ensure that the black people were kept securely in their place, and never was this more apparent than in the juvenile detention centres run by the states in various southern states. The Nickel Academy was located in Florida, and it managed to keep its abhorrent secrets for over 100 years. The book is a fictionalized account of one 15 year old black boy who got caught up in the system through no fault of his own, and ended up being sentenced to two years at that academy. What Elwood discovers at this house of horrors far surpasses his darkest imaginings. He suffers physical abuse and witnesses abuses that lead up to death numerous times in his short stint at Nickel. This takes us to about 2/3 of the way through the book, and then we begin Part Three. Here is where the storyline and timelines get messed up and distorted. We are flipped back and forth from 1967 at Nickel to present day New York City. No explanations, no Segway. Just random jumping back and forth. When I finished, I wondered why I bothered. I learned nothing new, and didn't enjoy the journey. After reading a similar story about aboriginal schools in Canada around this time - a little jewel of a book called Wenjack written by one of our wonderful Canadian authors by the name of Joseph Boyden, this book just does not begin to measure up and does not engender the same empathy at all. It's more of a shock-and-awe tale, with no real character development. I cannot recommend this book. ( )
  Romonko | Aug 18, 2019 |
When a young black teen ends up in a boys' home, he will never be he same. This is a work of fiction inspired by a real boys' home in Florida. Yep....this is a dark story, of racism, violence, & a world which is so unfair that it is shameful. However, Colson Whitehead writes so well, and manages to clearly convey the horrific nature of events without graphic detail. There is no fairy tale ending, in fact there is a twist at the end. However, throughout the main characters' lives, there is a slender sliver of light, the light of human connection and hope. The birth of the Civil Rights Movement and the words of Martin Luther King Jr. light a tremulous pathway to the real possibility of change, and relieve some despair. Not all of it though! The change must continue. ( )
  hemlokgang | Aug 18, 2019 |
This book is a fictionalized version about Dozier School for Boys in the panhandle section of Florida. This reform school operated with impunity for 100 years treating black and white boys with cruelty but more on the black side. Whiteside tells the story through eyes of Elwood Curtis a 16 year old black boy doing all the right things who through the injustice of the 1960's Jim Crow south ends up in Nickel Academy(Fictionalized Dozier Academy). He tries to follow the way of Martin Luther King but soon encounters the brutality of Nickel Academy. Eventually he connects with street smart Turner who knows how to do what you got to do to survive. Whiteside's book is a short 225 pages and though the topic is brutal he spares the reader much of the details. This is an important book to read and though it does not contain the previous creativity that Whiteside displayed in "The Underground Railroad", I strongly recommend this. One of our best authors . ( )
  nivramkoorb | Aug 13, 2019 |
"The capacity to suffer. Elwood—all the Nickel boys—existed in the capacity. Breathed in it, ate in it, dreamed in it. That was their lives now. Otherwise they would have perished. The beatings, the rapes, the unrelenting winnowing of themselves. They endured."
Cousin Whitehead's follow up to The Underground Railroad is slighter but even more effective. He tells the story of two boys, Elwood and Turner, who meet while sentenced to the Nickel Reform School for Boys. Whitehead based his fictional story on the real Dozier School that existed in Florida for over a hundred years. When it was finally closed down, archeology students discovered an unmarked grave of bodies that have long since been unclaimed. From this disturbing history, Whitehead weaves the story of a bright, idealistic boy whose prized possession is an album of Martin Luther King's speeches. A young man of promise who gets in the wrong car while hitchhiking to school, who once inside makes the mistake of sticking up for a bullied child, who continues to apply Dr. King's tenets even under such atrocious bigotry. His story is coupled with that of another boy. "Elwood saw that he was always simultaneously at home in whatever scene he found himself and also seemed like he shouldn’t have been there; inside and above at the same time; a part and apart. Like a tree trunk that falls across a creek—it doesn’t belong and then it’s never not been there, generating its own ripples in the larger current. He said his name was Turner."
Turner tries to mentor Elwood on the ways to stay alive in this school and tries to save him from trips to the "White House ", where kids are said to be going for ice cream because the bruises come back in so many different colors.
This was an accomplished novel by one of the most important writers of our time. This one will stay with me and be recommended often.
Some lines:

The officer of the court was a good old boy with a meaty backwoods beard and a hungover wobble to his step. He’d outgrown his shirt and the pressure against the buttons made him look upholstered.

Lonnie’s wide bulldog face tapered into a bullet at his shaved scalp. He’d scrounged up a patchy mustache and had a habit of smoothing it with his thumb and index finger when calculating brutality.

The country was big, and its appetite for prejudice and depredation limitless, how could they keep up with the host of injustices, big and small. This was just one place. A lunch counter in New Orleans, a public pool in Baltimore that they filled with concrete rather than allow black kids to dip a toe in it. This was one place, but if there was one, there were hundreds, hundreds of Nickels and White Houses scattered across the land like pain factories.

A writer like Whitehead, who challenges the complacent assumption that we even fathom what happened in our past, has rarely seemed more essential.

He applies a master storyteller’s muscle not just to excavating a grievous past but to examining the process by which Americans undermine, distort, hide or “neatly erase” the stories he is driven to tell.

Wash post
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. ( )
  novelcommentary | Aug 13, 2019 |
Colson Whitehead follows up his Pulitzer Prize with another great book, The Nickel Boys, which takes a fictionalized look at the dark history of the treatment of African American young men in US reform schools. Elwood Curtis does everything right until he’s in the wrong place at the wrong time with no chance in the racist judicial system of the 1960s. He winds up serving a sentence at The Nickel Academy where he faces racism, cruelty, and corruption. Based on the true story of The Dozier School for Boys, Whitehead handles the horror honestly without exploitation and splashes in glimpses of the future to offer some faint optimism. The Nickel Boys should definitely be in the TBR pile for readers of historical fiction, social justice novels, and literary fiction. ( )
  Hccpsk | Aug 10, 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).
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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.00As 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."00In 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.00The 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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