The Nickel Boys

The Nickel Boys

A Novel

Book - 2019 | First edition.
Average Rating:
Rate this:

Comments (66)

Add a Comment
Jan 10, 2021

I agree with the misgiving expressed by another reader that this excellent novel was somewhat uninvolving, considering its dramatic subject matter, I never found it boring. Based on history of how black boys were treated in a US reformatory school, it's written by one of the finest writers I've come across in a long while.
Whitehead has a keen eye for the telling detail, and the skill to convey incidents and things with artful simplicity, such as about a grandmother who is "shocked, as if someone had tossed hot soup in her lap." He describes, in prison-like rooms, the "...fuzzy haloes of finger grime around every cabinet latch and doorknob." In this reform school the protagonist "...heard stories of home and distant cronies, juvenile conjectures about how the world worked and ...naïve plans to outwit it." Yet it was populated by such guards as one "man of secret menace who stored up violence like a battery."
Short, powerful book. I look forward to reading more from Whitehead.

Dec 29, 2020

This is one of those books that make me feel almost apologetic for not enjoying them. The subject matter of The Nickel Boys is, without a doubt, a harrowing, shameful aspect of American history (or even its present.) What Elwood and the countless other boys face at the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory, is downright outrageous and tragic. Yet, I found myself unable to truly emotionally connect with the characters or the story, perhaps due to the author's style of prose. To be brutally honest, I admit that I felt somewhat bored during some parts. Perhaps if the author had delved into the more emotional aspect of storytelling, then The Nickel Boys might have been more enjoyable for me.
Despite this, I did appreciate the twist in the end, the contrasting personalities of Elwood and Turner, and most notably, the exposure of a seldom-discussed area of American injustice and tragedy.

Nov 04, 2020

A good true story. The ending was a surprise. The lives of black boys put into detention is very sad and explains some of the feelings of black lives matter.

Oct 28, 2020

Definitely worth reading (or listening to).
This short and powerful book does a great job giving the reader an idea of the violence suffered at the "school", while not going into too much detail.

Oct 27, 2020

The Nickel Boys follows the perspective of two young men: Elwood and Turner, currently enrolled in a juvenile reform school. The readers witness the haunting tragedies behind the gates of the school through glimpses of racial injustice and cruelty based on a true story. The Nickel Boys was a book recommended to me by a close friend, and I was glad I read it! The book was beautifully written, with no hesitation in disclosing raw details. The writing was hauntingly descriptive, and the setting was well researched to acknowledge the true story. A plot twist was extremely well-executed, and I did not expect it at all. Overall, I would rate it a memorable 4.5/ 5 stars because of the book’s beautiful writing to educate on pressing societal matters combined with fast pacing that allowed for a quick read that will stay with you beyond the end. I would recommend it to anyone who is a fan of heartwarming, educating, and suspenseful stories. The age recommendation would be for readers in the range of 14+ for brief mentions of graphic violence. The Nickel Boys will change your perspective on the past, to question the meaning of friendships, and enlighten your knowledge of racial injustices.

This story is based on Florida's Dozier School for Boys, a notorious place that boys were sent to for a multitude of reasons. None that I could imagine warranted the treatment they had to endure. This is a book of fiction, but after delving into the history of the Dozier School, I felt that Whiteheads book didn't depict the horror that I have read about. Don't get me wrong, the fictional story he writes was bad enough, but it's painful to read other accounts of what went on there. This is the second of his books I've read, both Pulitzer Prize winners. As much respect I have for the author, I have found both of the books I've read by him hard to follow. Anyone reading this novel may want to read up on the actual Dozier school. It's beyond belief. It's incredulous to me that this place could remain open for over one hundred years.

Oct 19, 2020

In this fictional reimagining of the realities of life within an actual Florida Prison Reformatory for Boys, the author, has captured the universal experience of children incarcerated. While the setting and events presented mirror that of a specific institution (Dozier) the operation of the prison and the experience of those subjected to its regime are widely shared by such institutions in the past and today. Residential Schools, Reformatories, Immigration Detention Facilities, share the traditional aims of carceral institutions, the "breaking of the spirit" and the viciousness of its staff in accomplishing this goal. Whitehead's novel addresses the additional ingredient of USA society. racism, and its traditional embodiment in carceral control and brutality.

Aug 29, 2020

Great read. Sobering to think that such a place could exist and to realize how a well-brought up young black man with a supportive mom was placed there.

Aug 28, 2020

Clumsy, brutish storytelling; juvenile.

Aug 23, 2020

This was a really good book in that it’s based on a story that is not well known but is really important. Elrond is a young black ambitious student who was wrongly accused of a crime and therefore sent to a “reformatory school” which really was just a bunch of torture buildings to young boys who were enslaved for years. Elrond’s personal hero is Martin Luther King and he draws on his inspiration to survive his torture. While the story was important, I felt that the book was difficult to follow because the author says “He” a lot and it takes a lot to figure out who/which “he” the author is writing about. I wish his writing was a little bit more clear to get rid of the confusion but was glad that I read it.

Aug 22, 2020

Pulitzer 2020

Jul 31, 2020

I liked this book. This is the first time I've ever commented publicly on a book, but The Nickel Boys is just that good. There's a truth in this novel that just so sobering, and I'm glad it won the Pulitzer Prize this year, I do believe it deserved it. It's really brutal though, so it's good to know what you're getting into before reading the book.

Jul 20, 2020

The Dozier School for Boys was a reform school in Marianna, Florida that operated for 111 years until a failed inspection in 2009 led to investigations that uncovered a history of abuse, beatings, rape, torture, and murder. It was closed permanently in 2011. Three years later, news of the school made its way to Colson Whitehead, and his 2019 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Nickel Boys,” is inspired by the real-life tragedy.

Primarily set at fictitious Nickel Academy in Jim Crow-era Florida and interspersed with accounts in contemporaneous New York City, the story focuses on two boys who befriend each other after arriving at Nickel: Elwood, a studious African American and ardent fan of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who possesses a strong sense of justice, and Turner, who has a less optimistic view of the world. Existence at the school — this is not a life these youths have been given — is as you might imagine: grim, harrowing, volatile, unpredictable, erratic, and, above all, dangerous. Elwood does his best to serve his time without incident but is severely beaten twice, once for trying to help another boy being attacked by sexual predators and again for writing a letter complaining of poor conditions. After Turner overhears that the administration plans to kill Elwood, the two attempt an escape. The story ends with an unexpected twist but to say anything more would reveal too much.

This is a heavy book, but it never reads heavy. It is utter realism, nothing fanciful, nothing extraneous. It is stark and bleak, powerful and painful, but also beautiful and hopeful. It is graphic without being gratuitous and yet, at times, it is disturbingly vague. It is the unknown and the unknowable that is ultimately the most terrifying, as much to the reader as to the Nickel boys. It never pulls its punches, never flinches, never blinks, never looks away from the hard and bitter truth of our collective past and the role racism has and continues to play in America. Intentionally or not, “The Nickel Boys” makes a damning case that we are unable — or, more precisely, unwilling — to see goodness, justice, mercy, equality, and love triumph over fear, prejudice, subjugation, discrimination, and hate. To quote Dr. King, “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but bends toward justice.”

Elwood believed that to be true, Turner less so. More than perhaps at any time since the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s, positive change feels possible — though not inevitable. The road is long. Meaningful and lasting reform will not come easily. Untiring pressure, persistence, and patience (not our strong suit) will be required. I can only hope the momentum behind the current Black Lives Matter movement finds firm footing, swells and strengthens, permeates the masses, and grows deep roots. Not until what happens to the least of us matters to the rest of us can anything of import be accomplished. Colson Whitehead’s “The Nickel Boys” plays a persuasive role in pushing that conversation forward.

Jul 09, 2020

Ok book. Based on a terrible situation.

Jul 04, 2020

The Nickel Boys is a brutally honest look at the cruelty that we are able to inflict upon one another. At times, this is a difficult and bleak read, make no mistake about it. Part of the difficultly in reading it results from the self reflection it elicits. In a sense, its a very modern look at a historical time period. Much like another book I read this year, Washington Black, this book examines how we think/talk about race in the present day but does so in a historical setting. For me, it’s most clear in how the character of Jamie bounces between the white and black campus of the school and in the school sports event in the middle of the book.

The book tells the story of Elwood and Turner. Two boys living at Nickel Academy (Whitehead's version of the Dozier School) in Florida. There are plenty of interviews where Whitehead talks about what lead to him writing this book, so I won't go into more detail here. Elwood is an optimist who has started to grow up during the Civil Rights movement, and Turner is a pessimist who lived his life growing up in the "system" of Nickel Academy. The book at its core is the tension between these two viewpoints of life, and asks whether an optimist thrown in this brutal reality can survive with their worldview intact. I'd argue that Whitehead says he can, but that's my interpretation.

Reread: I'll eventually reread The Nickel Boys. Whitehead's writing flows very well and the book never feels laborious. I think this book would benefit from multiple readings, evenly spaced apart to allow the reader to revisit its message at another time in their life.

Read more from the Author: Absolutely! I already have a copy of The Underground Railroad queued up to be read. After reading that, I want to read some of his older stuff as well. His writing is very clean, clear, and enjoyable to read, and I can't wait to read what he does with other subjects.

Recommend: Absolutely. This was a great read, and one worthy of reading and breaking down. As I said above, his story presents an important message about how we treat each other and it is something everyone ought to read. This was a difficult, and at times brutal, book. However, Whitehead really has a larger message about how we treat one another that he's telling through the violence and brutality which is a very important message to learn. So for that alone I'd like to reread it to unpack more of his message.

Final Thoughts: The book really shows the cruelty that we have within us to inflict upon each other, but sends a hopeful message that within that reality we have ability to persevere, overcome, and hopefully affect the world in a positive way.

Jun 09, 2020

This book was recommended by a good friend and initially I had my doubts about it. Having grown up near a 'reform' school I thought this would bring back too much I preferred remained forgotten. But I have been following the news articles about the 'school' in FL. So
I am glad I gave this book a chance. Broken into three sections it is engrossing from the very beginning. The main character surviving and prospering as he does - then coming back to bear witness is (perhaps) too wishful. In spite of this 'the Nickel Boys' is a great story.

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...

1-25 of 66 items

Explore Further

Browse by Call Number


Subject Headings

To Top