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The Nickel Boys

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When Elwood Curtis, a black boy growing up in 1960s Tallahassee, is unfairly sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy, he finds himself trapped in a grotesque chamber of horrors. Elwood's only salvation is his friendship with fellow "delinquent" Turner, which deepens despite Turner's conviction that Elwood is hopelessly naive, that the world is crooked, and that the only way to survive is to scheme and avoid trouble. As life at the Academy becomes ever more perilous, the tension between Elwood's ideals and Turner's skepticism leads to a decision whose repercussions will echo down the decades.

Based on the real story of a reform school that operated for 111 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.

224 pages, Paperback

First published July 16, 2019

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About the author

Colson Whitehead

40 books15.1k followers

COLSON WHITEHEAD is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of eleven works of fiction and nonfiction, and is a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, for The Nickel Boys and The Underground Railroad, which also won the National Book Award. A recipient of MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships, he lives in New York City.

Harlem Shuffle is the first book in The Harlem Trilogy. The second, Crook Manifesto, will be published in 2023.

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5 stars
102,846 (45%)
4 stars
87,969 (39%)
3 stars
27,948 (12%)
2 stars
4,984 (2%)
1 star
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 22,053 reviews
Profile Image for Nilufer Ozmekik.
2,200 reviews40.7k followers
March 30, 2023
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!

Profile Image for Roxane.
Author 118 books157k followers
March 12, 2019
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.
Profile Image for Robin.
484 reviews2,620 followers
April 11, 2022
The Nickel Boys, a book about the horrors of a 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.
Profile Image for Kat.
265 reviews79.6k followers
July 28, 2020
with a tightly plotted and masterfully crafted story, this book absolutely demands to be read. i can only say that i think it would have benefitted from a less nonfiction-esque writing style at times, but even with my writing preferences i definitely see why this has received so much praise and would recommend it to anyone.
Profile Image for Paromjit.
2,604 reviews24.8k followers
May 6, 2020
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize!

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.
Profile Image for Zoë.
328 reviews66.2k followers
November 27, 2020
[Book #3 for my grad school YA class: a historical fiction & crossover book]
This book has left me speechless. It will absolutely stick with me for a long time. Please read this and research the Dozier School for Boys!
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,010 reviews34.1k followers
September 21, 2019
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.
Profile Image for Cindy.
407 reviews112k followers
February 6, 2020
4.5 stars for a great book and sad times all around. Appreciate the way the main characters question Dr. King’s notion of still loving those who are cruel to you. Elwood’s precociousness and Turner’s heroism are so admirable and endearing. The plot twist is great too. Whitehead is a skilled writer but I do wish his prose opened up to more of Elwood’s emotional psyche rather than his journalistic tone, which limits the internal narrative and emotional experience. Since this is a story based on reality, we could have read a Wikipedia page or a journal instead; I wish Whitehead had seized the opportunity of differentiating his fictional story with an added layer of emotional depth. Regardless of that personal preference though, it's still a great book.
Profile Image for Bianca.
1,044 reviews902 followers
September 25, 2019
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.

Profile Image for chai ♡.
321 reviews153k followers
December 30, 2019
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 pages 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.
Profile Image for Swrp.
664 reviews
July 14, 2021
"We must believe in our souls that we are somebody, that we are significant, that we are worthwhile, and we must walk the streets of life every day with this sense of dignity and this sense of somebody-ness."

(Martin Luther King Jr, Britannica.com)

[Martin Luther King at Zion Hill - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h6sqA...]


"Even in death the boys were trouble."

"The boys could have been many things had they not been ruined by that place."

(Florida reform school, Wikipedia.org)

The Nickel Boys is based on the real incidents that happened in a Florida based “reform” school that operated for over 100 years. This heartbreaking and powerful book represents and depicts the will of humanity to endure, the endless fight for self-respect and honour, and the quest for deliverance. It also highlights the belief and arrogance of certain human beings that they are superior to the rest of humans.

“Her father died in jail after a white lady downtown accused him of not getting out of her way on the sidewalk.”

Can you believe that a child lost her father after being arrested for “bumptious contact”, because of not giving way on a downtown sidewalk?

This disturbing story also leaves the reader with a feeling of optimism and hope, and the thought that within each of us there is a part that would want the world to be a better, happy and peaceful place. But surely it is going to be a painful journey, as many of the humans still have the above-mentioned arrogant belief.

(Men of Destiny, Jack B Yeats)

It is true that The Nickel Boys is a fictional story, but it is to be noted that in today`s world, much of this story is ridiculously true!

The Nickel Boys is painful, distressing, sad, heartbreaking and powerful – and, a must-read.


"Hobbled and handicapped before the race even began, never figuring out how to be normal."


"He who gets behind in a race must forever remain behind or run faster than the man in front."


"The law was one thing - you can march and wave signs around and change a law if you convinced enough white people."


"You can change the law but you can't change people and how they treat each other."


"but that was the message of the movement: to trust in the ultimate decency that lived in every human heart."

"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."
Profile Image for Orsodimondo.
2,152 reviews1,691 followers
December 21, 2022

Colson Whitehead nei ringraziamenti finali cita questo film del 1980, “Brubaker”, diretto da Stuart Rosenberg e interpretato da Robert Redford che io credo d’aver visto almeno quattro volte. È ispirato a una storia vera, non molto diversa da quella che ha generato questo romanzo.

Da quando sei nato devi subire a causa del colore della tua pelle, il bianco vince sempre senza neppure aver bisogno di aprire, di muovere.
Ma adesso forse i tempi stanno cambiando, è il 1963, e forse il mondo sta capendo che bianco o nero prima di tutto conta l’uomo: c’è stata Rosa Parks che si è rifiutata di cedere il suo posto in autobus a un bianco, è rimasta seduta e così facendo ha dato l’avvio a una storia nuova; e poi in una tavola calda quattro studenti neri aspettarono di essere serviti il primo giorno di febbraio del 1960 e adesso quel luogo è un museo dei diritti civili, come ricorda Amy Hempel in “Il Tornado di Bambole"; c’è il reverendo Martin Luther King che apre i cuori e accende speranza, ha ancora qualche anno da vivere, gli spareranno e lo uccideranno il 4 di aprile del 1968.
Forse. Io ho forti dubbi: è troppo presto, il razzismo ha radici profonde in quei bianchi.

Redford si finge carcerato per qualche giorno, giusto il tempo di capire l’andazzo: poi rivela la sua vera identità e inizia a dirigere il penitenziario in modo molto diverso da chi lo ha preceduto.

Ma tu hai meno dubbi di me, tu ci speri. E poi è come se avessi vinto una borsa di studio: l’istruzione è sempre stato il tuo primo obiettivo e adesso puoi frequentare il college a gratis, per i tuoi meriti scolastici, wow.
Sei talmente fremente di immergerti nello studio che non sai aspettare. Chiedi un passaggio, ovviamente a uno del tuo stesso colore di pelle.
Lungo la strada vi ferma la polizia. La macchina è rubata. Tu ovviamente non c’entri nulla, sei innocente più di un neonato. Ma la giustizia è in mano ai bianchi. Decidono loro per te.
La Nickel.
E per te comincia l’inferno.
E almeno quello saprà accoglierti.

Una delle tante pagine nere della storia americana, una delle tante storie di segregazione e sopraffazione e razzismo. I ragazzi prima di diventare maggiorenni venivano mandati in riformatorio: se erano poveri, se erano neri (e quindi erano poveri), avevano più facilità a delinquere. E delinquere era anche rubare una mela o guadare in faccia qualcuno, tu nero e lui bianco. Decideva la Legge quando i giovani commettevano reati: una Legge fatta su misura dall’uomo bianco per difendere l’uomo bianco.
Ma non lo chiamavano riformatorio: la chiamavano Dozier School for Boys. Era in Florida, aperta nel 1899 e definitivamente chiusa nel 2011.

Nel 2014 iniziarono le indagini perché alcuni studenti di archeologia forense della University of South Florida ritrovarono decine di cadaveri senza nome sepolti in un cimitero segreto del campus. Una specie di fossa comune, in cima a una piccola collina: accanto al cimitero ufficiale che era già pieno dei resti dei ragazzi morti nell’istituto alla “luce del sole”.
E così si scoprì che la scuola, autentico carcere minorile, anche detto riformatorio, era stato un luogo di sistematica violenza sopraffazione tortura, dove si erano verificati omicidi e dove gli internati, soprattutto afroamericani, avevano subito abusi fisici e mentali, stupri di gruppo, mutilazioni e torture da parte dei dirigenti e dello staff.

Colson Whitehead prende questa storia vera, cambia il nome del posto vero nel fittizio Nickel, si inventa personaggi e plot: ma alla base c’è la sua personale inchiesta, le sue interviste ricerche e studio sul caso. E quindi racconta una storia più vera del vero.
E lo fa in un modo che mi ha molto colpito: un approccio linguistico che privilegia semplicità e chiarezza. Ma piani temporali sbalzati, struttura di racconto ben più sofisticata di un semplice reportage giornalistico. Chapeau.
Vado a leggere altro di suo. E comincerò da La ferrovia sotterranea

Profile Image for Brandice.
857 reviews
July 30, 2019
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.
Profile Image for Michael Finocchiaro.
Author 3 books5,543 followers
June 17, 2020
I was about as disappointed by this book as I was with the author's Pulitzer winning The Underground Railroad. I know it is a document based on true stories of an awful reform school in Florida (Dozier), but the writing just wasn't that great. There is a shift in perspective near the end that seems to invalidate half of what preceded and besides that, it was fairly predictable. I found the descriptions lackluster, the characters two-dimensional and the plot singularly lacking in structure. I am not saying that the story of racism in Florida (of which I could speak volumes) and the inherent violence and injustice of southern reform schools isn't an important, even critical, tale to tell particularly in these times with the return of racism as a preference rather than an anathema, but I feel that this narrative fell short in terms of literary quality. The terrors described by Alice Walker in The Color Purple or in Beloved by the late Toni Morrison are more vivid and terrifying than in this colder treatment by Whitehead.
Not sure, other than the spectacular subject matter, why this one is being considered for a Pulitzer - it is certainly less qualified than Disappearing Earth for example.

Colson went on to win this year’s Pulitzer. Truly, not sure that his name belongs in the rarified company of Faulkner and Updike in 2-time Pulitzer winners. I’d have to guess that this was a political choice rather than a literary one, which is unfortunate because it is, of course, a prize for good writing. Anyway, it is good to have an African American in that list, but in my mind, Toni Morrison or Alice Walker (or Ralph Ellison for that matter) would be more deserving.

My List of 2020 Pulitzer Candidates: https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/1...
My blog about the 2020 Pulitzer: https://wp.me/phAoN-19m
Profile Image for Beata.
729 reviews1,115 followers
July 26, 2019
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 …
Profile Image for Marchpane.
293 reviews2,128 followers
September 3, 2019
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.
Profile Image for Tucker.
385 reviews106 followers
May 7, 2022
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.
Profile Image for D.  St. Germain.
28 reviews67 followers
July 19, 2019
(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.
Profile Image for Angela M .
1,286 reviews2,205 followers
October 28, 2019
I don’t think there is anything original that I can say that hasn’t already been said about this book. I can only add my 5 well deserved stars and repeat what others have said. It’s powerful, painful and such an important book to read. This is a fictional account based on a horrific place, a real place, a reform school in Florida in the 1960’s, where young boys, in particular young black boys were abused physically, sexually, emotionally and in some cases murdered. It’s gut wrenching and heartbreaking, all the more reason to read this book. All of us need to be reminded of this awful history and to remember the boys who suffered here. Kudos to Whitehead for helping us do that . A must read for every American.
Profile Image for zuza_zaksiazkowane.
347 reviews31k followers
June 15, 2020
4.5 Cała książka jest bardzo dobra, wstrząsająca i swietnie napisana. A ta końcówka!? Takiego rozwiązania historii absolutnie się nie spodziewałam. Czytajcie!
Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,736 reviews14.1k followers
July 26, 2019
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.

Profile Image for Lark Benobi.
Author 1 book1,847 followers
November 25, 2019
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.

(nov 26 update: my end-of-year reflection on the books of 2019 has me recalibrating this novel, from 2 stars to 1 star. I love all you people who can love this novel, because the topic is so important, and history matters, but these truths, for me, didn't overcome the feeling that this one was phoned in.)
Profile Image for Andy Marr.
Author 2 books717 followers
August 30, 2022
Immediately after finishing this book, I realised that I had goosepimples on my arms. That was five minutes ago, and they're still there now. I'm not sure if they were the result of how traumatised the story left me, or because of how incredibly beautiful those final pages were. I think it might be both of these things at once.

I can honestly say that I have never been left more shaken by a story. I have also never read anything more breathtakingly well-written. I am utterly in awe of Mr Whitehead. Completely and utterly in awe.
Profile Image for Tammy.
512 reviews431 followers
February 14, 2019
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.
Profile Image for BernLuvsBooks .
773 reviews4,641 followers
January 16, 2020
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?
Profile Image for emma.
1,825 reviews48.4k followers
September 14, 2021
Against my selfish wishes, I'm going to be thinking about this book forever.

This is a horrifically sad and, tragically, real story, one that taught me many things that due to my ignorance and privilege I was unaware of, and ones that make me unendingly upset to know now.

And these characters are so full, you feel for them so intensely, that there is no way to forget what you read, what it feels like you've seen and heard and known.

There's a part of me that wishes I could forget, because these are heavy facts to carry, but really it's both my privilege to have not needed to learn them before and to have learned them from a source like this. A masterpiece.

Colson Whitehead is a wonder.

Bottom line: Wow.


this was even better.

review to come / 4.5 stars

currently reading updates

ever read a book so good you immediately read whatever else you can by that author?

Profile Image for JanB .
1,144 reviews2,513 followers
July 30, 2019

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?
Profile Image for Liz.
2,024 reviews2,529 followers
December 29, 2020
Five sorrowful stars
This book is as sad as anything, but yet needs to be read. Elwood Curtis is an intelligent young black man in the 1960s. He’s bound for college, but he picks the wrong car to hitchhike in and next thing, he’s in Nickel School, a boy’s reformatory in Florida. A school where corporal punishment is given for the slightest infractions. And sometimes, the boys just never come back to the dorm.
As before, Whitehead has written a book that blends emotion and intellect and makes you mad, scared and sad all at once. “Nickel magnified and refined the cruelty of the world.”
The story is based on the all to real Dozier School for Boys, which the Tampa Bay Times did an expose on in 2014.
Profile Image for Read By RodKelly.
205 reviews757 followers
December 20, 2019
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!
Profile Image for Michael.
655 reviews966 followers
August 2, 2019
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.
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