At a Glance
Title: The Nickel Boys
Author: Colson Whitehead
Published: July 16, 2019 by Doubleday
Genre: Historical Fiction
Goodreads Rating: 4.28 out of 5
My Rating: ★★★★☆
“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 in 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 on to 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 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. ”
Jordan (@readwithwine) and I choose to read The Nickel Boys as our first book for the Let’s Read, Rant, Repeat, Book Club. The Let’s Read, Rant, Repeat Book Club is a virtual once a month book club hosted by Jordan and myself. Each month we pick a book to read, create Instagram group discussions, and host an Instagram ‘Live’ one to two hour session at the end of the month were we talk all about the book. We generally have a few guests join us in our discussions but in the past few months we have been hosting the book club, we’re seen a ton of success.
Our book picks vary. We try to continuously mix up what we’re reading. So far we’ve read one thriller, one police procedural, one fantasy YA book, a literary fiction, and now a historical fiction book. As you can we like to jump around in genres. Which I think really helps to broaden my reading comfort zone.
This book in particular really did that for me. The Nickel Boys deals lot with race and the struggle of a post Jim Crow society, especially in the South. It’s only 200ish pages but I took me quite a while to read, mainly because the subject matter takes time to digest. Colson has beautiful writing, I’d probably be excited to read an instruction manual if it was written by him. But his writing also makes me uncomfortable, which any author who can make their reader feel so many emotions while reading is star in my book.
For most of the story we follow Elwood. Elwood is destined to be a star gentlemen, but when a chance encounter with a car theft ruins his reputation, he’s left questioning what the world really has in store for him. As he navigates The Nickel Academy, where he’ll serve his ‘prison’ time, Elwood’s ideas of the world are challenged and his moral compass is at risk of being tainted.
While we follow Elwood’s journey through the Nickel Academy, we get a glimpse into what a terrible place it truly is. While it’s not a prison, the lasting impact the school has on it’s pupils is clearly seen. The school, which is based upon the Dozier School for Boys was intended to be a reform school for young men (both white and African-American). Most boys sent here were sent here for minor infractions and instead of reform they generally were subjected to rape, beatings, and other inhuman punishments. One thing that Whitehead notes is that all races within the school were treated in this manner and that all races saw boys disappear from the school as well, though African-American boys were generally treated worse, all suffered at this school.
The school operated for 111 years and gained a stark reputation for abuse, beatings, rapes, torture, and murder. Even with periodic investigations allegations of abuse continued until 2009 when the school failed a state inspection. In 2009 after their inspection failure, a full investigation was started into the school to evaluation the most recent and even some of the historical violence and abuse allegations. Part of the investigation involved a forensic anthropology survey, which uncovered roughly 55 burial sites on the school grounds. An additional 19 graves were uncovered in 2019. The school was officially closed in 2009 and the state legislation of Florida is currently working to provide compensation for victims and families of students.
While Dozier (Nickel) is currently closed, the impact the school had on survivors is immense and Whitehead does a beautiful job of conveying the struggles they continue to have from the brutality used towards them while at the school.
Even though this book is short, it’s contents are powerful. It is not flowery, instead Whitehead used a more straight forward approach in telling this story, which I completely agree with. Whitehead let’s the fact speak for themselves, and man do they have alot to say. I highly recommend reading this book, if even to learn just a bit of history.
“We must believe in our souls that we are somebody, that we are significant, that we are worthful, and we must walk the streets with this sense of dignity and this sense of somebody-ness.”
If you think you’d like to read this book, get your copy HERE!
I hope you enjoyed my thoughts on The Nickel Boys. If you liked this review please let me know either by commenting below or by visiting my instagram @speakingof_books.
About the Author
Colson Whitehead is an American novelist. He is the author of six novels, including his debut work, the 1999 novel The Intuitionist, and The Underground Railroad, for which he won the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction and the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. He has also published two books of non-fiction. In 2002, he received a MacArthur Fellowship.