The Nickel Boys

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 1 Aug 2019

Member Reviews

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 while still not being an 'easy' one, due to the subject matter. The cadence and tone evoke an earnestness and sense of innocence that captures the spirit of the story perfectly. Infuriating and tragic, "The Nickel Boys" is a small but powerful book that packs a punch.
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For a boy in the Florida panhandle of the 1960s there are few escapes, education is one.  Elwood is lucky enough to get a place at a college in a town a few miles from home and he hitches a ride.  Unfortunately Elwood takes a ride in a stolen car and is arrested for car theft.  Sent to a reformatory school Elwood learns how to survive but he wants more and his belief in justice causes no end of problems.
I loved this book.  Whitehead evokes the hot Florida panhandle and 1960s segregation beautifully.  The gratuitous violence is never overplayed and the twist is actually rather unexpected.  A subtle novel of civil rights but a great one.
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One of the best novels i’ve read this year. Based on a Florida reform school, its brutal history is retold in this brutal and shocking tale.  This is beautifully written, a worthy companion to The Underground Railroad.
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In the time of the American Civil Rights Movement, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and a new boxer called Cassius Clay, a wholesome teenage boy is sent to a school to advance his academic and moral education. It almost destroyed him.
His most prized possession is a recording of Martin Luther King's speeches, which he learns off by heart, and aspires to live by King's teachings. Even against his friends, he always stands up for what is right and good: '“because for him to do nothing was to undermine his own dignity.”

​Unfortunately he makes a wrong choice and finds himself in the company of a wrong'un when the police turn up. He is tried and sentenced without much fanfare in the narrative and sent to a reform school called the Nickel Academy. There are rewards in the terms of merits and promotions but the Jim Crow laws enforced in Florida ensure that segregation prevents our young hero from advancing.

There are unbelievable horrors in this prison, thinly disguised as a school. Nightly beatings so severe some boys were permanently scarred, mental, physical and sexual abuse normalised for these second-class citizens. And some boys are pulled out of bed at night and never seen again. Nothing gratuitous is shown in the telling. Whether this is to demonstrate the routine behaviour as an accepted part of life or the author does not want to dwell on it, the effect is the same. The reader stops to register what has just been read. This is not that kind of horror book.

He makes friends with similar boys, one of whom he is particularly close to. His friend serves as a comparison: he accepts things as they are and learns to get by and use the system, whereas the protagonist remains idealistic and seeks righteous change.

The power of this story is that we know, from history, that places like this existed and the prejudice and ill-treatment African-Americans were subjected to. The opening to the book is a slow description of the boy's family and interests, emphasising that he is intelligent, hard working and straight-up, mainly due to his grandmother's upbringing.  As Martin Luther KIng said, he was "as good as anyone."

The final section sees our hero as a grown-up, obviously surviving his experiences and thriving. He reflects on how his experiences have shaped him and continue to do so, still with the words of Martin Luther King scaffolding his beliefs. Sadly, he  observes how racist attitudes still persist.

A difficult story simply told. This novel at times reads like a textbook. Perhaps that is the point.
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This is well written but utterly depressing.  For me it doesn't pull anything new out of the degradation of blacks in America. It just seems that the powers that be could do anything at anytime. I am not sure i want to read anything with such depression tenure. I care but i don't want to be laden under this awfulness which seems to continue even today despite it being examined, known and annotated.  Nothing changes
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The Nickel Boys is about a boy, Elwood, who wrongly finds himself accused of a crime and ending up at the Nickel school for boys. The story is centred on the treatment and mistreatment Elwood and other boys find themselves at the wrong end of. With strong themes of civil rights, race and injustice throughout I thought the story was well written and the ending left me with a lot to think about and a feeling of sadness of all that the boys endure in the school.
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really enjoyed this novel inspired by real events and place in Florida about a reform school about racial tensions and abuse but also books tries not to dehumanise the soul of the abused and tells their story through the eyes of Elwood and Turner how the southern states in the 1960's with the Jim crow laws weren't fair with the backdrop of the civil rights movement.
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Another great read from Colson Whitehead, this time set in a boys penal institution, the Nickel Academy, in 1960s Florida. One innocent mistake, and Elwood Curtis is sent to the Nickel Academy to reform himself. Thus begins a life in a chamber of horrors where boys are frequently abused, emotionally, physically and sexually. Most appalling of al is that this book is based on a real reform school.
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“We must believe in our souls that we are somebody, that we are significant, that we are worthful, and we must walk the streets of life every day with this sense of dignity and this sense of somebody-ness.”

Inspired by real-life events, ‘The Nickel Boys’ is angsty and barbaric. One of the darkest phases in American history, a time when systemic racism was deep-rooted in society, thereby destroying thousands of bright and talented black lives.

Elwood Curtis, a perceptive and astute child, dreams of a college education. He was raised by his strict but loving grandmother, in a family that has always lived under the shadows of racism, losing it’s members one by one to meaningless violence. As a child, Elwood loved reading, absorbing and memorizing anything with reach. His idolized Martin Luther King Jr. and grew up listening to his speeches and dreaming of a better world. His nature was shaped by King Jr.’s speeches, and over the years we find him struggling to find peace between the way of life he wanted to lead and the workings of a cruel world. 

After a borrowed ride in a stolen car on his first day to a Black college, Elwood is sent to a reformatory school called ‘The Nickel Academy’. The residents of this school are teenagers, both ‘black and white’, who have committed sins like petty theft, truancy, ‘disrespecting’ a white person, etc, or are orphans or runaways.

The Nickel Academy, a juvenile reform school, claims to teach its youth, skills that will help them survive in the world, a place where overall development is the sole focus. But behind all this facade is a facility that practices unspeakable brutality. The Black kids are subjected to prejudice and the punishment is based solely on the whims of the staff. Students are beaten black and blue for minor mishaps and sometimes they disappear ‘out back’ forever.

“To think of those Nickel nights where the only sounds were tears and insects, how you could sleep in a room crammed with sixty boys and still understand that you were the only person on earth. Everybody and nobody around at the same time.

Elwood, ‘as good as any other’ tries to fight against injustice and corruption with a good heart and decent motives. But once he meets the cynical Turner, he begins to wonder if the answer to cruelty is cruelty itself. As Elwood talks about his past life, while he is in New York trying to settle down, he repeatedly mentions how his experiences still haunt him.

“was like one of those Negroes Dr. King spoke of in his letter from jail, so complacent and sleepy after years of oppression that they had adjusted to it and learned to sleep in it as their only bed.”

The book gives us a piece of history that will bring up all the pent up rage you’ve had against every act of racism you encountered or read. ‘The Nickel Academy’ is a fictionized version of an actual reform school in Florida, a school where countless unidentified skeletons were found, severy tortured and lost within the Earth without a proper burial. Whitehead’s prose is interspersed with quotes from the actual victims and Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches that inspired thousands of Black youth to fight for recognition and respect through a simple act of love and acceptance.

‘The Nickel Boys’ is not only about this school, but who people inherently are. Elwood, an idealist tries to move forward by believing in the good in people whereas Turner is more cynical and believes in finding ways to stay clear of any mess through extensive planning and connections.  The narrative is plain and in very few words, the author feeds us bitter truths, leaving the readers to feel this mindless and severe injustice. It is brutal in more ways than one. Elwood’s strength and innocence draw attention and stay with the readers until the very end.
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Deeply moving, The Nickel Boys tells the story of two boys sent to 'reform school' and the appalling treatment they have to endure. Inspired by true events this book left me feeling very unsettled. Elwood and Turner have very different views on life but they have a close bond which helps them survive some of the cruel and testing situations they have to deal with. Elwood is intelligent and tries to follow the rules for an early release but finds that while the rules are written for all to see, they are not necessarily followed by those in roles of authority. A disturbing and thought provoking read. Thank you to Net galley and the publisher, Fleet, for an ARC.
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What an amazing story. Set in a Florida reform school for juveniles during the time of the American civil rights movement, this is a tale of everyday racism, sadism, injustice, sexual abuse and killing of young negro boys.

The main character, Elwood, is an intelligent, hard-working young man who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong person. He is unjustly sentenced to a term of imprisonment in the Nickel School and soon discovers that life there is downright cheap and threatening. Guards abuse and rape them, supervisors ignore the abuse, teachers fail them and the governor sells the school's food and equipment to the highest bidder in the outside world.

When Elwood does 'the right thing' and steps in to help a bullied youngster he finds himself taken to a notorious building for punishment. He discovers that keeping his head down is the only way to survive the cruelties and hideous, sadistic practises carried out on inmates. But his innate courage and belief in the civil rights he craves leads him to start keeping a written record of all he sees and experiences in Nickel. Elwood is told by other boys that there were only four ways out of the school, one of which is death. But he decides to find a fifth way.

Long after Nickel has been closed down Elwood hears of an inquiry into the school, following the discovry of mutilated bodies in the school's grounds. He sets off from his home to tell his story to that inquiry and to.settle old scores.

Despite the shocking subject matter and the knowledge that the novel is based on a true story  I found this to be a very moving narrative. The author managed to write very beautifully about the formation of friendships between frightened,boys, Elwood's noble character and resilience and his ability to endure things that many mature adults would find impossible.

I never saw the final twist in the story coming and I thought it was a  brilliant plot device. An absolutely superb book; I loved it and will very probably re-read it in the future.

Thank you to netgalley and to Little,Brown Books for allowing me to read this ARC.
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A difficult read because of the subject matter.  It's become clear in recent years just how widespread abuse of all descriptions was in homes and schools for children, whether it was down to race, religion, poverty or simply because those in charge were either paedophiles or sociopaths. It's almost impossible to imagine the misery of these children but the author goes a long way in helping the
 reader understand. It beggars belief that there are individuals who take so much pleasure in the pain of others, particularly vulnerable children who are in their care.
I could have wept throughout the book.
My thank to netgalley, the author and publisher for this copy.
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This book is just as brilliant as you would expect anything with Colson Whitehead's name on it to be. Elwood is an intelligent, young, black man (albeit with a slight naivety about him) in a world where Martin Luther King is just starting to gain traction. He dares to dream of a world where he can go to college and achieve in a similar vein to his white counterparts. He is noticed by one of his teachers, who manages to set this dream in motion for him. It's just all too good to be true.

Just before he starts this journey that will set him finally on a different path, he happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, in a society that doesn't care about whether he was actually in the wrong or not. The colour of his skin is enough to seal his fate and be enough proof of his guilt. 

The utter un-justness of Elwood's incarceration cuts you to your very core. You keep thinking, someone will save him and realise the mistake that has been made. But this is the strength of Whitehead's writing; he gives no such reprieve to the reader. Instead, he knows exactly how a black boy would have fared in an institution like this in the Jim Crow South of the 60's. 

Instead we have to witness the intolerable suffering that Elwood now endures at the hands of this institution. What makes this even more heart wrenching is knowing that the majority of this is based on a real reform school from this time, in Florida, and some of the words spoken come directly from the mouths of survivors. It will sicken you to your core. 

Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that a story about the segregation and systemic racism at this time in American history, is a harrowing read. And yet Whitehead peppers it with such beautiful moments of good humour and friendship. Elwood meets Turner on the inside, and this friendship manages to help them both through the worst of times. 

Colson's writing is both clever and subtle, he never embellishes too much, he just lets this simple story tell itself. By doing so, the stark horrors that happen to these young men are fully realised, with no literary imagery needed to intensify their impact. The atrocities carried out in this book will often have your heart in your mouth and a lump in your throat. And yet there manages to be positivity and resilience of human spirit in the sections that follow our characters later in their lives. This is a truly powerful book, with an additional clever moment towards the end that made me go back and reconsider some of what I had read. 
The Nickel Boys was released on 1st August 2019 by Little, Brown Book Group UK. 

Big thanks to Netgalley and the Publishers for the free advanced copy in exchange for an honest review.
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Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Underground Railroad is a hard act to follow. I found the story beautifully written, harrowing and so different to other books I had read. In some ways, The Nickel Boys is comparable, particularly in terms of the historical focus (but 20th Century America, as opposed to the 1800s). But, I didn’t engage with the book like I had hoped.

The Nickel Boys is about a reform school for boys in Florida.. It’s a hideous place. White boys are treated differently to black boys. Staff members are unpleasant, cruel. For Elwood, a virtuous boy who always did well, his ending up there is definitely something that shouldn’t have happened. It begs the question that if a white boy had committed the same crime as him whether they would have been treated differently. 

Whitehead deals with complex issues of race, with the role of Martin Luther King, that would have pervaded a lot of American life in the 1960s. He also moves forward in time to the 21st Century, perhaps not always seamlessly, to show how times and people have changed. I found some of the transitions a little clunky and perhaps not always necessary.

I wanted to love this novel. But I couldn’t. It’s tough to put my finger on why, exactly, but perhaps it’s a personal choice - or maybe Whitehead’s previous book’s evocative strengths are still hanging over me. It’s well-written, nevertheless.
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This was a harrowing read to say the least but a fascinating exploration of a time not so long ago in history. I loved the characters, plenty of stereotypes broken down whilst getting across the futility of the boys’ lives. It inspired me to read up on the reform school the novel was based on.
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An emotional novel but one that I couldn’t get swept up in and feel much for any of the characters in the story. Whether that’s because I’m emotionally stunted/a robot or whether there wasn’t enough characterisation to make me feel what these boys were going through then you’d have to read and find out for yourself. 

The author is highly regarded and when I saw this available for request on NetGalley I didn’t think twice. It didn’t work out for me but looking at the ratings I’m one of the few. It’s rare that I think a book should be longer but maybe if I’d got to know the boys more, breathed more of the prison (for want of a better word) then I might have felt more. As it was it was just reading horrific things out of a textbook. It’s upsetting but like reading about a dog dying is upsetting, not your own dog dying upsetting. 

For me, Sleepers showed much more horror in juvenile institutions (whether they were factual or not) and I felt more for the boys going through it as I’d lived with them in the outside world for more than a handful of pages. If you like this one then I recommend that one too.
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An unbelievably powerful story, so beautifully told. The ending had me crying, truly one of the best books I've ever read.
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Elwood Curtis, Turner and the other boys will stay in your memory.  Definitely one of the best books of 2019.
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2.5 stars 

The Nickel Boys, a story about the horrors of a reformatory school for boys during the Jim Crows years, was my first-time reading Colson Whitehead. I wanted to love this book but, unfortunately, I found it difficult to commit to the words.

This below-average rating isn’t for the writing. No, Whitehead’s prose is wonderful. It’s structure, pacing, are all exceptional. Yet, I was left wanting more. Lots of what was being told seemed irrelevant, exposition upon exposition of new characters and ideas. I understand that through the narration, Whitehead is digging deeper into the harsh reality of 1960s America. However, the story felt lifeless and at times, superficial.

Moreover, the distant narration made it difficult to sympathise with Elwood. He’s an innocent bystander, from beginning to end. I appreciate his attempts to follow the teaching of Martin Luther King Jr.,: to love his oppressors, to maintain his sense of who he is. However, I wanted to feel his emotions, see how he reacted to the horrific events, but he lacked the complexity I crave in a protagonist. I found fell Nickel boy Turner much more intriguing, but overall, I was unaffected by the characters. 

The fact that the story is inspired by true events angers me and I applaud Whitehead’s endeavour to tell this tragic piece of black history. However, something was missing. Something that would have tortured me, transported me and touched me.
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The novel was an incredible read and I finished it fast. Beautifully written, rich in detail and with sentences that don’t sound presumptuous. I felt like I’ve educated myself to some extent. The story and the details were extraordinary, gripping and relevant to events taking place these days. I personally really enjoy reading fiction based on real life events. It brings the story more to life, something you can connect with and feel the characters come alive. And Colson Whitehead does this masterfully, while still managing to enlighten the reader about the past. A fairly short book that truly packs a punch. 

Full review on my blog:
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