Cover Image: The Nickel Boys

The Nickel Boys

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Member Reviews

A worthy book, and yet not necessarily one that I felt fully engaged with. The subject matter demands to be read and Whitehead's writing is unreproachable as usual. Still, I found it difficult to connect fully with it, unlike his other books I have read. Still, your mileage may vary and I recommend it wholeheartedly, hoping that you will enjoy it more.
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After seeing this on Obamas recommended read list I was keen to pick this up. Unfortunately I found it harrowing and really hard to read, although I suppose that is the point. I loved reading about a slice of history I knew nothing about and it has stayed with me.
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Based on the story of a real reform school in Florida that destroyed the lives of thousands of youngsters, the Nickel Boys does not make for easy reading. But it's a tale that will stay with you for a long time after you close the final page. 
Centered around Elwood Curtis, a young idealistic African American teenager, who seems to be climbing the ladder away from the past and to a brighter future, but who steps on a snake and slides back into the mire, this is a soul-destroying journey into America's shame. A case of wrongful arrest, turning into a case of wrongful discipline, turning into the ruination of a life filled with hope and promise - and all of it determined by the colour of the teenager's skin.
Sent to the Nickel Academy to be reformed, Elwood tries to remain idealistic, be the better person, and that right will conquer all, but those rules don't seem to apply to the Nickel world. He soon learns the hard way to try to be more like his new friend Turner - to keep his head down, abide by the rules and to not get involved in any trouble, even to try and break it up. But he still repeatedly receives stark reminders that the powers that be constantly abuse that power and that the system really doesn't care about him.
I won't spoil the narratives twists and turns, but there is a pretty shocking denouement that left me stunned and reeling - a testament to Whitehead's incredible writing. He breathes life into his characters with such strength, that you feel you know them and want to fight their corner, and right some of the wrongs in society. A truly great book.
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This book shines in its brevity - filled with honest moments that reveal the some of the more shameful aspects of our history, Whitehead has created a narrative with impact. There are absences within the prose that lend to the sense of insecurity in the reader/narrator relationship. Ultimately, I think that the twist in the tale was somewhat predictable and made the book feel less "real", but it is undoubtedly good.
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I began this book with trepidation. I knew I was in for a rough ride with the subject matter but I took a deep breath and dived in. However, I quickly realised that it wasn't the subject matter that was disrupting my reading experience but the writing style. At first I thought it was me and I wasn't concentrating enough but I started to get easily confused with who was speaking at times and I found little difference between so many of the characters that I became lost, this did not help with the ending, if you have read this book then you will understand what I mean. This is tragic and full of unspeakable trauma based on a real school for boys in Florida and I felt such a pull towards Elwood as he tried his best to keep his head down and find a way to remove himself from the horrors of the reform school. Perhaps I would read this again in the future and give the writing another chance but for now I have to say it didn't work for me unfortunately.
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After hugely enjoying The Underground Railroad, I felt Colson Whitehead had a hard act to follow. This story was just as captivating and emotional, but even more focused as there were less narratives, which gave you the feeling of being close to the characters involved. Sticks with you long after finishing
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Absolutely brilliant. One of the best books I read in 2019, maybe one of the best novels I have ever read?
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Fantastic! This is truly the modern ‘Great American Novel’. An eye opening, genre defining novel with heart at its core.
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This was a brilliant read; well-written and I raced through it. It was surprisingly short but still packs a punch. A great follow-up to The Underground Railroad.
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Although a work of fiction, Colson Whitehead took inspiration from the Dozier School for Boys, in Marianna, Florida, he talks about this in the acknowledgments and during many a interview surrounding the development and writing of The Nickel Boys. 
The book centres around Elwood Curtis, a young black boy growing up in the Jim Crow era in Florida. Elwood idolises Dr Martin Luther King and has aspirations to attend college in order to make something of his life. However, his world is turned upside down whem instead he finds himself arriving at Nickel Academy, a segregated reform school for young boys and a living hell - rape, beatings, abuse, corruption and depravity. "Most of those who know the story of the rings in the trees are dead now. The iron is still there. Rusty. Deep in the heart wood. Testifying to anyone who cares to listen." Colson Whitehead's writing made it easy to slip into Elwoods world. His nuanced characterisation; Elwood, as an idealist, optimist, naive in his view but unmoving in his resolve that things would change, that the world would change. Turner, the realist, who tried to warn his friend that things would always be this way, the path would remain unchanged and this was how life would be. The writing is breathtaking, his ability to leave things so the reader could draw there own conclusions coupled with his non linear approach to the narrative really worked for me. When I came to the end, I was sat in stunned silence and (no spoilers) I didn't see it at all. 
The Nickel Boys is devastating and brutal but in my view books like this need to be read, to learn and to educate.
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Perhaps my favourite book of the year. 

I loved everything about it - the characters, the plot, the almost unbearable sadness. It shone a light on a part of history I was horribly ignorant of and brought it alive. It's important that you read this book!
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I was so disappointed with the Underground Railroad, the central conceit of the whole book was unsuccessful for me and it through the whole story off. This more straightforward narrative was much better, more suited to Whitehead's simple (but not simplistic) style and using his talent for tender but suspenseful writing to better effect. Elwood is heartbreaking central character, a hard worker, academically minded, deeply inspired by the Civil Rights Movement around him and determined to better his condition and that of his fellow African Americans. Bad luck and inescapable, unforgiving, state-sanctioned racism set back his dreams and send him to Nickel where life is hard for the young offenders, waifs and strays that end up there. And even harder if they're Black.

Whitehead doesn't just focus on the straight-laced Elwood, he stuffs his characters with heart, whether they're orphans or offenders (and he makes it clear that just about anything can be a crime if you're African American) he reveals how the system has helped to make them what they are, how their choices are curtailed from the very start.

It's as shocking as The Underground Railroad but it's also a much tighter and more accomplished work. Violence is absolutely central but Whitehead manages to conjure the terror, the hyper-vigilance and the pain without resorting to graphic detail. The hints and bare facts are enough. Even more important is the way that the violence is just one facet of a system purely designed to hurt and discriminate and do whatever was necessary to maintain the status quo and keep ethnic minorities in "their place". Jim Crow was about more than violence and The Nickel Boys reveals how white people across the spectrum of class and wealth benefited from racism. It's a tough but important story, even more shocking for being inspired by a real "school", the Arthur G Dozier School for Boys. If anything, I would have liked a more even distribution between the past and present storylines, but it remains a powerful, essential story.
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Loved his previous novel and was not disappointed with this one. Would definitely recommend. Marvellously evocative of the time period and address serious issues in an entertaining way
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Having read The Underground Railroad I thought I knew what to expect from Colson Whitehead's work, but this latest novel was deeply evocative and profoundly moving. It will stay with me for a long time.
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A literary tour-de-force, Colson Whithead's latest masterpiece charts the journey of one black man in a time and school-system that is endlessly geared against him. The Nickel Boys really is an ode to a group of victims that have long been forgotten by the annals of American history and the examination of the sheer power of institutional and community-wide violence. Vital reading for anyone who wants to understand the horrifying (and seemingly easily-made) realities of the past.
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Brilliant historical fiction as usual, though it doesn't quite pip the Underground Railroad for me. But Colson Whitehead is consistently excellent and this is no exception.
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Contains Spoilers!



"Is that what normal husbands do - buy flowers for no reason? All these years out of that school and he still spent a segment of his days trying to decipher the customs of normal people."

A brilliant fictional account of a real scandal: abuse in juvenile detention in the US. Elwood is a bookish boy who is doing well despite his parents leaving him, second rate schooling and Jim Crow. 

Given the promotion for the book it comes as no surprise that he is thrown into detention and must try to learn how to survive. He finds that his law abiding, hard working approach which served him so well in school and in a part time job is absolutely no protection within Nickel: being clever is of no interest,  the system wants the boys cowed and productive (as their labour is highly profitable). Boys are imprisoned for offences that add up to being children, or being poor. One of the reasons the institution can run is the willful ignorance of those outside, who see the boys as unimportant and are happy to benefit from the way the institution is run.

The twist at the end completely got me, I was reassuring myself with the thought that this lovely boy survived such a terrible experience and made it out the other side, and instead was shocked to find that in fact he was another victim in the graveyard. 

I was impressed at how Whitehead showed the long term impact of the abuse on the boys as they became adults: it would have been easy to dwell on the physical abuse but he shows the psychological effects as well as the way there is pressure on survivors to "move on" from their experiences.
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The subject matter of this powerful novel does not make for easy reading, but it is vital. Whitehead shines a light on the atrocities of the past in a way that is quietly devastating. Highly recommended.
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Vicious boys' borstal in Florida has scarred those who made it out of there, but recently there have been bodies found and it's dragging up all the memories people thought were buried.

Based on a true story, this is shocking but also in some ways uplifting.
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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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