The Nickel Boys

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 01 Aug 2019

Member Reviews

Thank you NetGalley and Little, Brown Book Group for the ARC

Some stories gain an extra layer of horror, because you know they're based on reality. This is one of them. 

Set in 1960's Florida, it tells the story of the boys in Nickel Academy, reform school/prison. The injustice, abuse, racism and violence they experience are not just a local evil, but endorsed by society at large. 

The stories of the boys before they entered the facility (I just cannot call it a 'school')and the discoveries long after they left, give further depth to the severity and gross injustice of their situation.

Even though the situation and subject matter are so heavy, the novel was easy to read and never felt preachy.
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A depressing story of the worst excesses of racism in the USA. Although this is fiction, it is based in fact. The history of a real reform school - Dozier School for Boys - in Florida that operated for more than 100 years and destroying the lives of thousands of children. 5 years ago, archaeology students from the University of Southern Florida documented details of graves found both inside and outside the grounds of Dozier School. 
Whitehead’s novel opens with a similar announcement about a state investigation into crimes once
committed at the  Nickel Academy reform school. Archaeologists surveying the
area have discovered an unmarked grave that had been “neatly erased from history.” 
The main character, Elwood Curtis, has been abandoned by his parents and brought up by his grandmother Harriet who is strict but loving. The gift of a recording of sermons by Martin Luther King makes a big impression on him and he does his best to support the Civil Rights struggle of the early 1960's. 
Elwood always tries to steer clear of trouble, staying away from the bad boys and working hard at his job in a general store. But when he hitches a lift on his way to enrol in college it turns out the car is stolen and his punishment is to be sent to the Nickel Academy. While there he tries to follow the words of the Reverend King ‘Throw us in jail, and we will still love you.’, but he soon discovers that the Nickel Academy is a place where corruption is rife and physical and sexual abuse is commonplace. Boys are whipped for the slightest reason and soon after he arrives, Elwood is beaten so badly that he ends up in hospital. Even the whippings are segregated
He makes a friend, Turner and the pair are put to work on various "outside" jobs but basically they are just slave labourers. Elwood documents the various goings on at the Academy and he plans to contact one of the school inspectors with a letter detailing the horrors inflicted on its inmates. Although Nickel is a place that "magnifies the cruelties of the world", he tries to make the best of his time there. There's an innocence about Elwood which is matched by the relentless cruelty of the reform school officials. In the safety of his grandmother's home, he was inspired by King's words but at Nickel Academy they ring hollow. 
Against Elwood's naivety, there is Turner's cynicism. He believes that "You can change the law, but you can't change people and how they treat each other". Towards the end of the book there is a stunning plot twist which took me completely by surprise. 
This is a deeply troubling story which made me wonder if there really has been any change in America since the days of MLK and the Freedom Riders. One quote may give the answer - "They treat us like subhumans in our country. Always have. Maybe always will."
This is a tough read, beautifully written. Recommended.
My thanks to Little, Brown Book Group UK and NetGalley for a copy of this book in return for an unbiased review.
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Having loved the Underground Railroad, I was delighted to have been gifted an e-arc of The Nickel Boys. 

It tells the story of a reform school for boys in Florida set up in the Jim Crow era, particularly telling the story of some of the boys based on their true stories.  I fully expected to be heartbroken reading the book, as I was reading parts of The Underground Railroad and I was prepared for that.  However, I have to be honest and say that I struggled with this book.  The first one third of Elwood's story kept me engaged but after that, my mind kept wandering while I was reading it.  I didn't feel any connection to the characters nor the emotional punch of their experiences and injustices meted out at the school and it may be that this book might have had more of an impact on me had it been delivered as a true account of the men's experiences, in their own words, rather than in a semi fictionalised layout.  

It is a subject I am very interested in learning more about and I will definitely read more about this topic and would like to thank the publisher and the author for the opportunity to read The Nickel Boys in exchange for my honest opinion.
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The Nickel Boys tells the story of the fictional Nickel reform school in Florida. In the book, young men were sent to this school, often for minor offences, and were subjected to a brutal regime which some of them did not survive. We follow the story of one you man in particular, Elwood Curtis, but also, increasingly as the book progresses, the young man he befriends at Nickel, Turner. Elwood is at Nickel after a serious case of injustice motivated by racial hatred, the wrong colour skin in the wrong place at the wrong time. Injustice is a key theme through the book and it may well make your blood boil with anger at times - it did mine.

The story makes you even more angry when you learn in the acknowledgements that it is not pure fiction but is based on a real reform school, the “Arthur G Dozier School for Boys”, and a lot of the incidents described are based on the very real testimony of victims. And this is not some school from “back in the day”, but from within my lifetime with the events taking place in the late 1960s.

I have only read one other Colson Whitehead novel, that being The Underground Railroad and there is a marked difference between these two books even though both deal with race. The Underground Railroad was almost a fantasy, making the railroad not just a route slaves used to escape but an actual physical underground railroad that connected different locations. Whitehead used these different locations to examine different aspects of historic slavery and race relations in America. In The Nickel Boys, there is nothing like this, there is, in essence, simply a story that the author believes needs to be told. It is hard to disagree with him.

One thing that is very noticeable as the story develops is the quotations from speeches by Martin Luther King. For most of us, those words are wonderful speeches made by a man now famous world wide. But here, Dr King’s words are not simply great speeches, they are a challenge to be lived out. Elwood often struggles to see how he can live in the way that King urges when there is so much cruelty and injustice around him. This is especially true when he learns early on that taking any kind of stand for what is right and just can lead to effective imprisonment and violence. How can forgiveness and love operate in such a hellish place? For me, this battle to put great words and ideas into practice in real life was the most fascinating thing about the book.

The Nickel Boys doesn’t just tell the story of the school, but it also leaps forward to the present day and examines the ongoing impact of the school on men’s lives and, crucially, the work the victims do to expose the cruelty and violence that lay hidden for so long. And it is this aspect of the book that brings the story right up to date and right into the faces of its audience. It is a timely reminder that there are people today who have lived their lives as victims of horrendous racially motivated cruelty. It is therefore also a reminder that racism has not gone away: it may, in some cases, have been brushed under the carpet, but this book seeks to put a story that has lain hidden on display as a warning or a lesson. And it is very effective.
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This book is a difficult, but honest story about the life of black people in the 60s. Discrimination was a part of life, and they didn't have any of the privileges white people had. Every time I read a book like this, I just can't believe the cruelty humans are capable of. It makes you feel ashamed really. 
Excellent one. Hard to read, but real.

Thanks a lot Netgalley and the publisher for this copy in exchange for an honest review.
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Ellwood is a teenage working-class African-American boy being brought up by his grandmother in Florida in the early 1960s, when, despite civil rights activism, racial segregation is still strictly enforced. Nevertheless, Ellwood has decided to do everything 'right'; he studies hard at school, is known as a reliable worker in his hotel job, and has been recommended for a special scheme allowing disadvantaged young people to take college-level classes at local black college, Melvin Griggs. He listens over and over again to a recording of Martin Luther King's speeches that his grandmother bought him, idealising non-violent protest and taking part in a civil rights march himself. Nevertheless, none of this protects Ellwood when he is wrongly accused of joyriding and sentenced to Nickel, a reformatory school for boys that is supposed to create upstanding citizens rather than subject its inhabitants to punitive imprisonment. As Ellwood reflects ironically when he first arrives at the place: 'The campus was kept up meticulously, a bounty of lush green... The cedar trees and beeches cut out portions of shade, tall and ancient. It was the nicest-looking property Ellwood had ever seen... In a sad joke, it intersected with his visions of Melvin Griggs Technical, minus a few statues and columns.'

Nickel might look good from the outside, but it's rotten on the inside: dormitories go unpainted, bleachers splinter, canteen food is stolen by the guards and sold to local businesses, boys are informally loaned out to labour for those who can do the staff a favour, and above all, there's the 'White House', where an industrial fan hides the sounds of night-time beatings. Even worse than that, however, is being 'taken out back', for after that boys tend to disappear. Whitehead conveys the horror of their fates through descriptions of archaeological excavations of their bodies in the present day, which clearly and chillingly spells out what happened to them, but avoids sensationalising their pain: 'When the state of Florida dug [one boy] up fifty years later, the forensic examiner noted the fractures in the wrists and speculated that he'd been restrained before he died, in addition to the other violence attested by the broken bones.'

The first two-thirds or so of The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead's seventh novel, follow a pretty straightforward narrative that is familiar from prison or reform school memoirs and fictions; Whitehead's take is lifted by his incredibly moving writing. A couple of incidents are horrifyingly memorable, not necessarily because of their violence but also for their poignancy, such as a notable boxing match between the champions of the 'black' and 'white' sides of the school, and the boys' pride when they decorate the place for the annual Christmas Fair. Nevertheless, I found myself wondering if there was more to this story; the two of Whitehead's previous novels that I've read, Zone One and The Underground Railroad, were both dense and intelligent, making the reader work hard in a good way, whereas this seemed to be relying on simpler emotional beats. But The Nickel Boys, too, becomes more complex later on, as Whitehead starts flashing between life after the institution and life still within it. The ending of the novel, in particular, had me in tears, as Whitehead draws together the past and present with no hope of closure in the future.

Like a number of recent novels by African-American writers (Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing, Jesmyn Ward's Sing, Unburied, Sing, Yvonne Battle-Felton's Remembered), Whitehead effectively shows how slavery is at the core of America's modern history, and shapes black lives and deaths to this day. The only thing that stopped this being a five-star novel for me was his handling of his characters. SPOILERS FOLLOW. We are led to believe that Ellwood is narrating his time in Nickel as well as his later life in New York, but at the end of the novel, it's revealed that it's his friend Turner who survived the place; Ellwood was shot dead trying to escape after a naive attempt to whistleblow on the goings-on in Nickel. The 'Ellwood' we meet in later life is in fact Turner, who has taken on his friend's name to honour him. I'm not sure why this twist was necessary. Indeed, it seemed to pit Ellwood and Turner too clearly against each other as archetypes, the 'good' black martyr who is too idealistic for this world, and the canny black survivor who understands the reality of institutional racism. As with the early chapters of the novel, Whitehead seems to sacrifice nuance for emotion. SPOILERS END. However, this is a haunting novel, and Whitehead's evocation of what was a real-life place will be difficult to forget.
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I found it difficult to engage with this story. Elwood Curtis grows up in 60's Florida, a time of race riots yet balanced with that the wonderful influential and lyrical leadership and direction of Martin Luther king. One small mistake results in Elwood being enrolled in a reform school, a home for difficult boys and an attempt to make them physically, emotionally, and intellectually better. The young Elwood Curtis meets, befriends and is greatly influenced by Turner, a fellow detainee.."The key to in here is the same as surviving out there-you got to see how people act, and then you got to figure out how to get around them like an obstacle"....The book in part explores attitude to racism at that time, whilst graphically illustrating the brutal treatment such unfortunate boys were forced to endure and suffer, incarcerated in an institution meant to help and reform young minds but ultimately destroying them. Many thanks to the good people at netgalley for a gratis copy in exchange for an honest review and that is what I have written.
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Colston Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys is a story of two teenage boys who end up in a Southern reform school with a long history of institutionalised racism, brutality and corruption. The story moves between the early 1960s and the present day, when a secret grave site is found on the grounds of the school by local archaeologists. 

Whitehead addresses the struggles the boys face, Elwood’s struggles with his strong moral sense and passionate belief in the words of Dr Martin Luther King against the daily injustices and horror of life at Nickel; Turner, more circumspect, just trying to survive and get out; some of the other boys’ acts of defiance, knowing the consequences; the reasons they were sent to the school in the first place. The effects of this ‘education’ will be felt by all the boys for the rest of their lives. Although the characters are fictional, Whitehead based Nickel on a real reform school, Dozier in Florida. 

What is particularly striking and clever about The Nickel Boys is Whitehead’s documentary, sparse writing style. Violence and brutality are everywhere at the school (and also in life before being sent to Nickel) but never written about excessively, the whole narrative is very focused and the effects on the reader are all the more powerful for that. 

I finished the book a couple of days ago, it is easily one of the best books I’ve read this year and personally, I preferred it to The Underground Railroad. Still, I’m finding it quite hard to write about The Nickel Boys and not rage. I keep thinking about human capacity for discrimination, hate and violence against anyone perceived as ‘other’ and how we don’t seem to be able or willing to evolve. Trump’s most recent racist tirades not helping.

At one point Whitehead writes “Their daddies taught them how to keep a slave in line, passed down this brutal heirloom.” before briefly documenting the history of solitary confinement cells in juvenile institutions, outlawed after WW2. “But the rooms waited, blank and still and airless. They waited for boys in need of attitude adjustment. They wait still, as long as the sons – and the sons of those sons – remember.” 

Highly recommended read. My thanks to Little, Brown and Netgalley for the opportunity to read The Nickel Boys.
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Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” won both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book award and was longlisted for the Booker prize – but as well as its literary prize recognition it gained a number of nominations for Science Fiction prizes and won the prestigious Arthur C Clarke award.  

That book, in simple terms, told a familiar story in an unfamilar way.

The sadly familiar story is of brutality on Southern American slave plantations.  The unfamilar way is by turning the “Underground railroad” used to describe the route slaves took to escape, into a physical railway connecting cities and states with different variations on race relations. He used this device to trace not just the history of black slavery in America, but to relate it to race relations across American history up to the present day, and to draw on other analogies including the Holocaust and even Slavery in Republican Rome.

The author’s latest novel is perhaps best described as also examining the legacy of slavery and the practice of racism in America, but by doing the opposite - telling an unfamiliar story in a familiar way.

The story is of a Florida based reform school Nickel, whose pupils or inmates, often sent there for minor offences, are subject to forced labour for the state (and via corruption for the staff of the school), savage beatings, rape, punishment cells and in some cases unexplained disappearances (believed to be after fatal beatings followed by burials in unmarked graves).  Although white and coloured boys are sent to the school, they are strictly segregated and the coloured boys subject to particularly harsh treatment. 

Whereas Whitehead’s previous book relied on fantasy – what is particularly shocking about this book is that it is a very light fictionalisation of a real school – the Arthur G Dozier (or Florida) School for Boys – and perhaps even more shockingly the events portrayed are not from the 19th Century but the late 1960s.  On one level I was shocked to not be aware of the events portrayed – but Whitehead himself only became aware in 2014 and I think that the choice to make this at core relatively conventional (by his standards) novel is simply because the story is deeply impactful without need for embellishment or a new perspective.

Where the author does round out the story is in two ways.  

Firstly by bringing in the words and teachings of Martin Luther King and examining the challenge of living them in practice.  The main protagonist in the story Elwood, starts the book listening repeatedly to a LP of King’s sermons and speeches and follows the Civil Rights movement passionately – plotting how he can get directly involved using his educational prowess.  But when simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time (hitching a lift in a car which was stolen) leads to him being sent to Nickel and both witnessing and personally experiencing the racist brutality there, he struggles to come to terms with how to forgive those oppressing him and by doing to resist their racist agendas.  Even then he retains a belief in justice and is convinced that even if the boys cannot help themselves, others will come to their rescue when their plight is known (he imagines the National Guard taking over the prison).  His views are contrasted with the more cynical and world weary Turner – the secondary character in the novel – who gradually befriends Elwood.  

The second is in a modern day framing device for the novel – examining, with a twist, the lasting impact of Nickel on the lives of those staying there and the gradual exposure of the practices in the 21st Century.  

Recommended.  My thanks to Vantage for an ARC via NetGalley.  I will post the review to Goodreads 2 weeks ahead of publication.
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The Nickel school of the title was based on a real school in Florida which somehow makes this compelling story even more devastating. Straight away the reader is thrown in to the horrors of the school as the true story of what went on there is uncovered by experts examining the remains found in both the official and the deeply disturbing unofficial graveyards, found as the school was being cleared to make way for a new building. We then switch between past and present as Elwood looks back on his childhood and the events that led him to Nickel rather than the college he was so excited to attend. Like the others lucky enough to survive, Nickel has scarred Elwood and he struggles to cope with normal life. That’s because, although his childhood was difficult, nothing could have prepared this intelligent young man who was convinced that Martin Luther King was going to be able to right the wrongs in American society, for the beatings, the trips to ‘lover’s lane’ with certain staff and the random killing of the young people who’d been sent there to ‘get them on the straight and narrow’ in a healthy educational environment. 
This is not the sort of novel you could describe as enjoyable but it is so moving and well-told that I read the first half in one sitting, stopping only because I had to be elsewhere.  I defy anyone to be dry-eyed at the end of it!
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A very important contribution to the ongoing discussion about race and identity that I am recommending to all my customers as an absolute MUST READ!
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Brutally honest book concerning life of black people during the 60s, when segregation was still very much the norm. It shows that one little mistake could cost someone everything they've worked for, and not only that, also be punished in the most vicious and despicable ways imaginable. 
Very difficult read about torture in the name of "betterment" and "training".
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The Nickel Boys is what happens when The Shawshank Redemption meets When They See Us meets 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 (basically a prison) in 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 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. 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.
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This novel is small in size but mighty in content. Based upon the harrowing experiences of a real-life 'reform' school the story is heart-wrenching yet beautifully told.
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In order to understand the complexities of our present times it is I would argue necessary to obtain an appreciation and knowledge of the past. This can be done through the reading of history  books and first hand contemporaneous accounts of those who were there at the time. To supplement this there is the reading of first class fiction based on real life events which gives an extra resonance and depth. Colson Whitehead is famous for his best selling book "The Underground Railroad" a thrilling tale of escape from slavery in the American deep south. Here he has produced another deeply disturbing but thoroughly engrossing novel this time dealing with the continuing endemic and Institutionalised racism that originated from the time of slavery. 

Based on the history and real life events at the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna Florida we follow the early 1960's story of Elwood Curtis who despite leading an exemplary life of study and hard work is due to no fault of his own sent to the The Nickel Academy. Here he enters a nightmarish world of abuse of all kinds under the supposed protection of the State of Florida.  He makes a friend of a boy called Turner who's views are diametrically opposed to Elwood's idealism and belief system inspired by the words of Dr Martin Luther King. In an environment where death either through accident or disappearance is a regular occurrence which of either Elwood or Turner is best equipped to survive 

I do not want to give too much away but there is a terrific jaw dropping twist at the end which I never saw coming and gives extra resonance to the plot. I'm not American and have not even visited there but I get the impression that if American society does not address and atone for its deeply ingrained and systemic racist past then it will be unable to move forward as one united country with no splits and divisions. A really moving and thought provoking read.
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It took me a while to warm to this, as early on it seemed like the kind of 'racially-motivated injustice to incarceration' story we've seen and read plenty of times before. But gradually the sheer quality and humanity of Whitehead's writing pulls it out of the ordinary and grabs you.  Not as groundbreaking as The Underground Railroad but exceptional in many ways, even before the interesting late development that I didn't see coming. I am grateful for the opportunity to have read this captivating novel.
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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, 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 comes 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, and which I feel is destined to become a classic in the future. Highly recommended! Many thanks to Little, Brown for an ARC.
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Colson Whitehead’s shocking story of racial segregation and social injustice in the mid 20th century. Well researched and inspired by contemporary articles detailing a corrupt welfare and correctional system for wayward youths, Whitehead’s central characters convey the hopelessness, despair and determination to escape their oppressive and violent ‘housemen’. An uncomfortable but gripping read. I found difficult to put down so read it in one sitting. As an avid fan of Colson Whitehead’s works, I do thoroughly recommend this book.
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Today The Guardian broke the news that China is building dorms to house thousands of Muslim children while their parents are undergoing "re-education". In the past few years, the British government have been forced to confront claims of abuse in children's homes as far afield as Ireland, Scotland, Canada and Australia. Some young adults incarcerated in state-funded religious institutions receive loving care and a meaningful education; many do not. The Nickel Boys is set in a for-profit prison under Jim Crow. The administrators rig boxing matches between black and white brawlers, farm the boys out as cheap labour and sell the prison's supplies to the townsfolk and pocket the profits. Boys who break the rules (by sticking up for others, say, or exposing corruption) are taken out for 'ice cream' (hint: it isn't ice cream) The damage inflicted at Nickel is lifelong, as shown by flash forward sequences set in New York during the garbage strikes. Failed relationships, dead end jobs, addiction and recidivism are the norm. 
Colson Whitehead's notes at the end of the novel reveal just how much of the story is made up of real experiences. I found this oddly disappointing- The Nickel Boys is advertised as a novel, when it's really more of a fictionalised biography. The protagonist is sent down for a "car theft" that happened exactly as Whitehead described.  A fair amount of dialogue is taken straight from the mouths of survivors. I found myself wishing that Whitehead had published an oral history of Nickel, allowing the survivors to speak for themselves. Fact is often scarier than fiction, and I doubt that many boys 'graduated' from Nickel without falling victim to the warden's cruelty. I felt encouraged to seek out more information on American reform schools and the experiences of Black 'students', though I suspect that history has conveniently swallowed much of it.
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The Nickel Academy is fictitious (I think) story of Elwood Curtis, a young black boy in Florida who finds himself sent to a reform school that is based on the factual Arthur C Dozier School For Boys.

The opening scenes, set in the present day, have some archaeologists excavating human remains on the site of the recently closed Nickel Academy. These remains are not in the well-populated official graveyard and people begin to wonder what horrors led to these unofficial graves. 

Then we head off to the 1960s, where most of the novel is set. Elwood is an optimistic boy - perhaps too trusting - but hard working and determined to create a better life for himself. And Elwood faces opposition from a racist system in a racist state. He is not allowed the same opportunities that white boys have; he has to see the adverts for the funfair but cannot go in. And what opportunities he has can be taken away by a capricious establishment. 

So Elwood lands up in the Nickel Academy, hopeful that he will be able to make the most of an adverse situation. He is determined to keep his head down, study hard and return to society a stronger, wiser person. Except there is no studying to be done. The work is menial, and even in [almost] jail, the black boys get less opportunity than the white boys. 

Colson Whitehead could have opted for labouring on the brutality of the school; the sadism of the guards and the corruption that denies the boys the comforts that they should be receiving. He could have made this salacious. Instead, by focusing on Elwood, Turner and the others, he humanises the boys. This makes the abuse much more salient, even when it lurks in the background. It confronts the subliminal societal attitude that black boys suffer less from imprisonment; that they don't have ambition, friends or family to lose. 

There are forays into the present day where time at the Nickel Academy has retreated into the last, but left a legacy of hunger to succeed and prove the system wrong. It creates fighters - and sometimes the fight can be put to good use. 

The Nickel Boys is very well written - a great sense of place and the scenes feel real - but also very well constructed. It is not a long book but it packs a lot in. It conveys the monotony and repetition of the reform school without ever being monotonous or repetitious in itself. It is a lively, sometimes funny read - but with heartbreak around every corner. It is a novel that has a lot of death, but so much life. 

This is what a criminal justice/civil rights novel should be - no twee endings where everything comes right thanks to some divine intervention or piece of outrageous luck. Shit happens. The story is how society must never forget the shit, must know and respect those who suffered through it; and expect to make restitution.
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