The Nickel Boys

The Nickel Boys

A Novel

Book - 2019
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May 01, 2020

This book was recommended to me by a fellow book lover and I am glad for it. Unfortunately, I have yet to read Colson Whitehead’s more famous book, The Underground Railroad. I will get there eventually!

This is a coming of age story that sheds light on an institution that has been forgotten within the frameworks of contemporary history and the various formal and informal structures formed in the aftermath of slavery. Within this book, we learn of the reformatory schools that were popular starting in the late 19th century and well into the 20th and even 21st centuries. These schools are where troubled boys were sent instead of prison. However, even within the confines of a reformatory school, segregation was WIDE and APPARENT.

Elwood, our main character, comes of age amidst the civil rights movement and holds the words of Martin Luther King Jr., constantly on his mind. Mulling them over and over, trying to understand, embody, and enact his statements. Elwood spends his early life staying out of trouble, guided by his maternal grandmother who has no one left but him. Elwood has dreams of going to college, with even a college fund started to enable those dreams. However, he is inevitably stripped of all his rights, as many before him and after him will be. And with those college funds now being used for his defense. Elwood is faced with the all too real reality that the rights he deserves will never be given freely. He fights between playing the game to get out alive or doing what he knows to be right.

This is a beautiful, compelling story. It was incredibly well-written, with meaningful themes embedded throughout the book. I enjoyed the seemingly circular motion of the story that was enabled by having two perspectives.

"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."  -- Colson Whitehead

Mar 17, 2020

A great American novel

Feb 18, 2020

Not a bad read, and reminded me a little bit of the movie "Sleepers" with Kevin Bacon. Some chapters introduced new characters that you never heard of and eventually 5-6 pages later you realized Elwood was the "he" who was interacting with these new characters. The ending was surprising but a little disappointing for me.

Feb 13, 2020

Really impressed and moved by this novel. Amazed at the epic scale the author achieves within just 200 pages. Very affecting portrayal of this hideous place's effects on the boys during their time there, and for the rest of their lives. The story took a turn that I did not foresee, creating a conclusion that was at once surprising, fitting, and deeply emotional.

Feb 07, 2020

Colson Whitehead's "The Underground Railroad" seemingly won ever award possible, and, I think, will endure as one of the great novels of our time. It was an ambitious, compelling, and necessary book. So how you follow it up? "The Nickel Boys" is a shorter, more focused novel, but it's just as powerful. Elwood Curtis, growing up in Florida, is doing everything right: he works hard, he stays out of trouble, he takes the words of Dr. King to heart, he's bound for college. And then something goes horribly wrong, and he finds himself in a brutal, racist reform school, where he struggles to survive. It can hard to read knowing that, even though it's fiction, it's based on facts. It's another great novel from Whitehead that deals with racism and injustice head on and generates enormous empathy for his characters. I can't recommend this book highly enough.

Feb 03, 2020


Jan 28, 2020

sounds similar to Canadian stories of indian residential schools.... and I so narrowly escaped the 60s scoop

Jan 27, 2020

Devastating. Criminal justice reform and closing the school-to-prison pipeline need to be top priorities in our state legislatures.

Jan 17, 2020

Not my favorite subject matter, but I appreciate character(s) construction along with plot development which is more than a ingenious craft and symbolism alone.
Humming over pages, flashback, with King's speech ringing in my ears, I wondered how Elwood, the naive and sweet boy could become a savvy and bitter businessman; I grew more interested in Turner at the school and his scheme to adapt than Elwood being an educated rigid idealist; I even dreaded the upcoming Turner's sacrifice for his pal to survive...

Jan 05, 2020

Wow. Recommend highly. I appreciated it not going into gruesome detail, and leaving the real awfulness to our imagination.

Dec 29, 2019

This story is fiction and it reflects reality. A tragic and violent history Jim Crow America. Whitehead masterfully takes the reader on a journey into the penal system for adolescent boys, both black and white in the 60’s in Florida. This story focuses on the realities of how black boys were treated. It is another sobering view of America and how we have a past we must understand to move into a future where Black Lives Matter. I recommend it!

Dec 28, 2019


OPL_AnnaW Dec 20, 2019

Whitehead excels at finding the humanity in history; his characters seep their way into your soul. A Jim Crow-era story that will break your heart and have you marveling at the power of resilience.

Dec 05, 2019

So well written and so heartbreaking that it was hard to read. Based on a true story about the Dozier School for Boys in Fl.

Nov 21, 2019

This is the 2nd book I’ve read by this author and once again I find myself in the minority of readers who find it underwhelming. The plot is based on fact and I expected to be torn apart emotionally over the terrible life the kids endured at this school. But I wasn’t. The flat writing style kept me distanced from the characters so that I didn’t feel drawn into their world or emotionally connected to them. I applaud the author for bringing this moment in history to the public eye, but the way it was told did not click with me.

SJPLDfournier Nov 10, 2019

Travel back in time and see inside a dark establishment that managed to "rehabilitate" children for 111 years. The characters here and story line are fictitious. But the reality may have been far worse.

TCCL_Adult_Fiction Oct 30, 2019

Such a great book!

Chapel_Hill_KrystalB Oct 28, 2019

This book is heart AND gut wrenching. Be prepared for many feelings. The story is solid, though, and really worth a read. I am still reeling from an unexpected turn of events. Just like Underground Railroad, this one sticks with you. Colson Whitehead… so good.

Oct 28, 2019

Excellent! Liked it better than Underground Railroad.

Oct 07, 2019

African-American author of the recent Pulitzer Prize as well as the National Book Award for "The Underground Railroad" writes another novel about America's shameful past based on true events at a boys' reform school in 1960's (Jim Crow era) Florida. Colson Whitehead is an amazing writer! The horrifying events are written in such an understated way that it makes the horror even worse.

Oct 02, 2019

Powerful . . . there are no 'reparations' for this sort of inhumanity

Read this after "The Underground Railroad" which I read but do not remember detail of . . . was recommended by BHObama

Should consider one of earlier novels? "Sag Harbor"?

STPL_Kerry Oct 01, 2019

WOW. This book evokes strong emotions - disbelief, anger, disgust, pity and hope to name a few. It is a haunting novel inspired by true events--I found it deeply moving and deeply disturbing. It was a hard read but an important one. The ending was unexpected and it threw me--I had a literal ache in my chest by the time I read the last page. This is without a doubt a must-read.

ArapahoeAnnaL Sep 19, 2019

The main character, Elwood, is a high school student in 1962, living in a Black neighborhood in Tallahassee, conscientious and thoughtful, happy enough with life but stung by the humiliations imposed by the Jim Crow south and inspired by Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement. Less than a quarter of the way into the story we find out how vulnerable and tentative this life actually was. When Elwood finds himself in an abusive and dangerous boys' reform school Whitehead keeps the writing matter of fact so that the rage and horror fall to the reader. Despite the reality of life in the south, Elwood clings to a belief in American justice. Elwood's idealism and the friendship he finds balance the dark events depicted.

Life in an abusive and dangerous boys' reform school is an allegory of life in the Jim Crow south.

Sep 17, 2019

Listened to an interview on NPR this summer and said to myself I didn't want to read about the unfortunate Nickel Boys and the people who abused them. It's been a year of awful revelations in the news, and I am just going to skip this book. I relented a few months later and put it on hold. It's excellent, you'll be rooting for Elwood, socked by his twist of fate, rooting again for him to escape, and finally shocked by the surprise ending. It's tough to understand that this novel was based on "real-life" reform school—Dozier in Florida. History can be hard. It's important to write the truth about all of it.

JCLS_Ashland_Kristin Sep 16, 2019

This unflinching look at a Florida "reform" school (based on true events) is an important view into what happens when young boys are incarcerated at a very young age.

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