It’s 1963 in Tallahassee, Florida, and Elwood Curtis has a bright future ahead of him, enrolled in advanced college courses ahead of high school graduation. Then one innocent mistake lands him in the boys’ reformatory, Nickel Academy. Based on Florida’s real Dozier School for Boys, an institution that operated for over 100 years brutalizing young boys, The Nickel Boys is a vital work of historical fiction, challenging every soul to search out the deep truths of the past, to which all of our futures are anchored. Recommended By Aubrey W., Powells.com
I was completely floored by this deeply moving book. I cannot imagine that I will read a finer novel this year. Recommended By Keith M., Powells.com
This sharply written, gut-punch of a novel is the epitome of the saying that fiction is a lie that tells the truth. Whitehead unflinchingly portrays the horrors of Jim Crow-era Florida, an uncomfortable period of American history that many would rather forget. Whitehead shows us that unearthing the truth of injustices buried in the past is a powerful and necessary act. A brilliant book written by a master of the literary arts, Nickel Boys is a must-read. Recommended By Mary S., Powells.com
Colson Whitehead continues to be unafraid to expose the horror of the black experience in America, and to that I say, Amen, Mr. Whitehead. This is the story of a boys' reform school in the South, and the history of torture the boys endured there. Although this is fiction, the school this book is based on did indeed exist and operated as the novel depicts. The story of Elwood Curtis is a study in race relations and utter cruelty, and the hopelessness of those children who were held for years is so heartbreaking it makes for a difficult read. Yet, Whitehead is an impressive storyteller, and he uses that hook to lead you through this nightmare, complete with a harrowing and, ultimately, shocking ending. Gorgeously done, the hellish story of the forgotten Nickel boys is revelatory and agonizing. Stories show us ourselves and our world, and this is one you should not miss: they lived through it, we must read it. I foresee another Pulitzer nomination on the horizon. Recommended By Dianah H., Powells.com
Synopses & Reviews
In this bravura follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize, and National Book Award-winning #1 New York Times bestseller 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.
Based on the real story of a reform school in Florida that operated for one hundred and eleven 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.
"A necessary read." President Barack Obama
"...A writer like Whitehead, who challenges the complacent assumption that we even fathom what happened in our past, has rarely seemed more essential." The New York Times Book Review
"...[D]evastating and powerful, a harrowing novelization on another dark aspect of American history. . . . Never didactic, but always illuminating — even in those darkest of places in our collective story — The Nickel Boys is a brilliant, horrifying look into the legacy of Jim Crow, and the ways in which racism and oppression don't exist in defiance to the American Dream, but rather as its fuel." NYLON
"...Whitehead's novel is certainly revelatory, but more for the ways in which it traces these atrocities to the past and present, weaving tragedy into multiple lifetimes. The Nickel Boys isn't just a testament to systemic racism; it's an archaeology of pain." A.V. Club
"Whitehead's brilliant examination of America's history of violence is a stunning novel of impeccable language and startling insight." Publishers Weekly
About the Author
Colson Whitehead is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Underground Railroad, which in 2016 won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction and the National Book Award and was named one of the Ten Best Books of the Year by The New York Times Book Review, as well as The Noble Hustle, Zone One, Sag Harbor, The Intuitionist, John Henry Days, Apex Hides the Hurt, and The Colossus of New York. He is also a Pulitzer Prize finalist and a recipient of the MacArthur and Guggenheim Fellowships. He lives in New York City.
Colson Whitehead on PowellsBooks.Blog
A new book from MacArthur Genius and award-winning author Colson Whitehead guarantees three things: a beautiful, snappy, and surprising prose style; a full-hearted commitment to the author’s subject, whether that be poker, the Deep South, or teen angst; and a reading experience cocooned in Whitehead’s seemingly limitless imagination...