BOOK REVIEW: Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

Publication Date: July 16, 2019
Publisher: Anchor
Format: Kindle
Pages:  210 Pages
Genre:  African-American Lit
Buy: Kindle | Audiobook


When Elwood Curtis, a black boy growing up in 1960s Tallahassee, is unfairly sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy, he finds himself trapped in a grotesque chamber of horrors. Elwood’s only salvation is his friendship with fellow “delinquent” Turner, which deepens despite Turner’s conviction that Elwood is hopelessly naive, that the world is crooked, and that the only way to survive is to scheme and avoid trouble. As life at the Academy becomes ever more perilous, the tension between Elwood’s ideals and Turner’s skepticism leads to a decision whose repercussions will echo down the decades.

Based on the real story of a reform school that operated for 111 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.


I can see why this book won a pulitzer.  Based on the Dozier school in Tampa Florida Whitehead brought to life the inhuman devastating ways mostly orphaned or poor boys were treated.  This book starts with the discovery of a mass grave and the remains show signs of torture and murder.  

I think I'm still reeling from this book, the horror of what people are capable of doing to children when they feel they are better than them is so disturbing. We meet Elwood when he is a young inquisitive child and watch him grow into an idealistic teen who believes in Martin Luther King's vision of the world and feels that he should always try to be his best but this isn't the reality of life in the south. He doesn't understand the way the world really works and keeps finding himself in trouble.  When he decides to hitchhike to a special college English class he finds himself in a stolen car and the cops not caring he is just an innocent passenger.  He is sent to Nickel a re-education home where Elwood thinks he will get a better education and then be able to go to college when he leaves.  What he finds is very different.  The teachers don't care, the work is remedial and most Nickel kids don't even know how to read.  Discipline is random and handed out in the "White House" with a belt and if you are really in trouble you wind up "out back", and never return.  

This is a fantastic and well written book that will stay with me for a long time.  I read Whiteheads Underground Railroad book and I think this is even better.  Amazing author and amazing book.

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