In Colson Whitehead s latest historical masterpiece, a horrific, real life reform school for boys in Florida is fictionalized as The Nickel Academy, a century old institution where teenage boys, black and white, are sent for the slightest crimes truancy, petty theft, disrespecting a white person, or even the crime of being abandoned by their parents Extreme abuse, rape, racism, and brutal murder are ruling principles, and the only way to escape is to run away or suffer death at the hands of the sadistic school administrators The story is narrated by Elwood Curtis, an ambitious young black man who idolizes Dr King, looking to his great words as a guide for his own way of existing in the world He is on his way to college when he finds himself at the wrong place at the wrong time and has his path to success derailed when he lands in the snake pit that is Nickel Academy, a place which breaks down all of the ideals he held so dear, leaving him to face the ugliness of the world and its random system of undeserved violence and punishment He becomes close with another resident named Turner, who tries his best to rid Elwood of his infallible naivete and belief in the good of all people.The most brilliant thing about this novel is the writing and plot structure Unlike many historical fiction novels, or novels based on true events, Whitehead doesn t spend hundreds of pages building up his setting, or dumping information on the reader He goes straight into the horrific depths of the story, constructing a novel that shows incredible restraint and nuance It is the ending that elevated this book from being great to being absolutely stellar and incredibly poignant I was truly surprised by the revelations in the end, which totally clarified how brilliant and important the non linear structure is for the story.This follow up to the incredible accomplishment that is The Underground Railroad is another monumental work by a phenomenal and powerful artist A world of injustice or the truer, biding worldThe Nickel Boysmelds When They See Us with The Shawshank Redemption and 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 effectively a prison during 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 explicitbrutality, 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 still not an easy one, due to the subject matter The cadence and tone evoke an earnestness and sense of innocence or perhaps, na vet 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. Colson Whitehead Brilliantly Dramatizes Another Strand Of American History Through The Story Of Two Boys Sentenced To A Hellish Reform School In Jim Crow Era FloridaAs 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 S, 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 AcademyBased 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 revised review 5 stars It was quite a sight, all the boys, big and small, hustling in unified purpose, paint on their chins, the chucks wobbling as they ferried the cans of Dixie As part of their community service, The Nickel Boys paint buildings Dixie White, while avoiding sadistic and potentially fatal beatings delivered via a leather strap named Black Beauty The boys, cheaper than a dime a dance and you got for your money, or so they used to say, are in segregated juvenile detention in Jim Crow Florida for crimes of malingering, mopery, incorrigibility, or being an orphan, just as the generations before them had served time for vagrancy, changing employers without permission, and bumptious contact, i.e bumping into a white person or failing to step off the sidewalk to let a white person pass The goal at Nickel Academy is to earn points and status rankings However, the rulebook for points and status rankings has never been seen, because like justice, it existed in theory Achieving status would mean the interred might get discharged from the Academy, fully reformed, rather than end up in an unmarked grave on the property The main character, Elwood, is a serious and squeaky clean young man who gets straight As and saves his report cards for the day they desegregate Fun Town, an amusement park in Atlanta advertising throughout the South that children with a perfect report card were guaranteed free admission leaving out the implied whites only in the ad He listens to a record of a Martin Luther King Jr on repeat With Civil Rights marches happening around him it is 1962 and moved by the work of King, he strives to be a man of dignity Still in high school, he s chosen to attend college courses at Melvin Griggs Technical, the colored college just south of town On the first day of classes, he accepts a ride from a stranger to get to Griggs, but the ride leads him straight to the Nickel Academy campus instead when it ends up the car is stolen His entry beating to the Academy puts him in the school s infirmary for weeks The Nickel Boys is based on the accounts of the real life Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida, once the largest training and reform school in the country Hundreds of boys died while wards of the state at Dozier, including from gunshot wounds, blunt force trauma, numerous broken bones, or being locked in solitary confinement when a fire broke out Archaeology students at the University of South Florida have been working for years to uncover graves, document remains and try to trace them where possible to their families of origin The Nickel Boys is a harrowing look at the trauma of juvenile prisons under Jim Crow as told through the fictional experiences of Elwood and his friend Turner One will make it out and live to tell the tale he ll even go on to subconsciously name his business after the highest level status rank could achieve at Nickel, the level that got you out of the academy Ace out in the free world to make your zigzag way As characters, Elwood represents the strain of thought that believes social change is possible, that humans can aspire to and achieve a higher purpose together, while Turner, grounded in the current world, believes it is dumb and mean and one must learn to navigate that.Readers familiar with the convict leasing system won t be surprised to find that the boys maintain the homes of those who serve on the board of the Academy in addition to the parks and public spaces of Eleanor, FL Elwood tries to bring attention to both the corruptions and living conditions at the Nickel Academy, but the country was big, and its appetite for prejudice and depredation limitless, how could they keep up with the host of injustices, big and small This was just one place A lunch counter in New Orleans, a public pool in Balti that they filled with concrete rather than allow black kids to dip a toe in it This was one place, but if there was one, there were hundreds, hundreds of Nickels and White Houses scattered across the land like pain factories, and it would take another 50 years before the truth would come out about what had happened to young men there Caption From Library of Congress Orphaned children and juvenile offenders could be bought to serve as laborers for white planters in many Southern states from 1865 until the 1940s Library of Congress, Prints Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection, LC D428 850 This is a does the moral arc of the universe bend towards justice Or not kind of book, and Whitehead himself doesn t come down on either side of the argument, rather showing how reality and aspirations weave and wobble between extremes, like Obama s remarks the day after Trump s election the path that this country has taken has never been a straight line We zig and zag and sometimes we move in ways that some people think is forward and others think is moving back Indeed, as Whitehead shows, it can be hard to be idealistic in the face of so much ugly history It was impossible, like loving the one who wanted to destroy you, but that was the message of the movement to trust in the ultimate decency that lived in every human heart The overarching sadness of this book is in the boys potential, snuffed out As Whitehead writes, the boys could have been many things had they not been ruined by that place they were denied even the simple pleasure of being ordinary Hobbled and handicapped before the race even began, never figuring out how to be normal The Nickel Boys is an intense take on the justice system in the Deep South during the turning points of the Civil Rights movement, and what that movement meant for individuals, connecting it to both the longer racialized history of the prison system in the South after reconstruction and the results the Civil Rights movement brought about in modern times For on Southern justice after reconstruction, Oshinsky s Worse Than Slavery Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice is an absolute mind blower and seminal reading In the end The Nickel Boys is a lot to digest, mostly because the actual history is so heavy I had mixed feelings about the seemingly dispassionate voice that Whitehead uses to describe much of the boys experiences it felt like an emotionally removed telling of events that were actually quite intense I initially gave it four stars because I found that approach unsettling But Ron Charles convinced me that perhaps this approach was taken to avoid sensationalizing or glorifying the boys pain over communicating the facts At the book s conclusion, the story s survivor, now a successful small businessman, does get to dine at the restaurant his friend had always dreamed of seeing a black person eat in as a child So while this post Jim Crow era and he poses the question what do we call this period now, with so much unresolved hasn t settled many or even most thorny issues around history and race in America, Whitehead does point to some progress the same progress others point to when they write about Whitehead. Tallahassee, Florida, 1960 s and Elwood a young black boy has big plans He believes MLK that change is coming soon, that non violence and forgiveness with eventually free their people Allow them the same rights as whites But, this is the Jim Crow south and Elwood, with a belief in his bright future, will find himself in the wrong place, at the wrong time Sent to the Nickel Academy, said to be a place that straightens out those on the wrong place As Elwood tries to survive in this hellish place, mistakenly called a school , his idealistic beliefs are beyond challenged.This is a difficult book to read Not because of the writing but because the subject is a horrible one What happens to the boys in this school is hard to process, hard to understand How could do many evil people be in the same place at the same time How could they all go along with what was happening there, whether they participated or not The chapters alternate between the present and the past Scenes are not dwelled on, not described to the limits, but a sense of dread permeate this novel A twist at the end that I did not see coming.So why read this Well,it was based on a real school, on real boys that this happened too The author explains why he wrote this at books end My reasons for reading are the same These boys and what happened to them deserve to have their story told They deserve to have people know what they allowed to happen to them. Before starting this novel, I had read several interviews with Colson Whitehead, and reading them added to my understanding of THE NICKEL BOYS Mr Whitehead chose to write about a piece of history which even he had known nothing about before 2014 a reform school for boys which operated for decades and where children were treated with cruelty and brutality A deeply disturbing and shocking novel about two black boys in the 1960s who are sent to the so called reform school, The Nickel Academy, who become friends and who undergo massive, horrific psychological and physical abuse during their stay there.THE NICKEL BOYS is not a long novel, but it does comprise a lot of anger, helplessness, pain and despair I am certain I will reread this novel again, for its intensity and narration This is not a novel that leaves a reader indifferent Five blood freezing, rage boiler, pump squeezer, creator of several lumps on your throat, tear jerker, wake up call for all the injustice, unacceptable, unfair wrongdoings of the system stars As soon as I closed the book, I just sat for at least two hours, paralyzed, did nothing, lost, confused, agitated, speechless, deeply, wholeheartedly, painfully sorry for the characters and all the suffering they had to endure The worst thing is I didn t read a fiction, I definitely read something based on true stories When you re surrounded by your own choices which make you feel safe and careless and stick to your daily routine, reach out to your own comfort zone,you always tend to forget what happens at the outside This book makes you remember it with a harsh, vulgar, ugly slap on your face It makes you remember, outrageous, darkest shameful era of American history It starts with Elwood s story who is smart, who likes comic books so much, who is hard worker and who has bright future by starting his college education But everything changed as soon as he found himself a stolen car and accused wrongly as a thief, was sent to Nickel Academy, segregated juvenile, full of racism, torture, abuse, brutality Elwood seems like a na ve who still thinks he could fight against injustice, corruption, repression in the school As soon as he meets with cynical, smart, practical Turner who finds his partner in crime to survive in this jungle You can find the great balance and mash up of many produced, perfect stories of injustice in this book starting from Kill a Mockingbird , Fruitvale Station , Do the right thing , When They See Us , Shawshank Redemption If you could survive after reading brutal, aggressive, raw, raging things that the characters endured and fought against by sharpening their survival skills and have a good stomach to absorb the details you re gonna read because there are so many truths hidden inside between the lines, this book is great way to face the other side of frightening human history that encourages you do something by raising your voice and stop acting like three wise monkeys by opening your eyes The ending was another surprise and gut wrenching twist knocks you out I wanted to finish my review with the remarkable words of Martin Luther King Jr s quote Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly Sigh Sigh Sigh I think I will continue to sit, speechless, lost, shaken, angsty, sad I need time to absorb what I ve just read Words fail me in trying to express how good this book is What I can say is go buy and read it immediately I read it over a week ago and it is still running through my mind I anticipate it will continue to do so for quite some time The best book I ve read this year, and I ve read quite a few A don t miss read. 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 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, sexual abuse, 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 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 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 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, of justice and injustice, and which I feel is destined to become a classic in the future Highly recommended Many thanks to Little, Brown for an ARC. The Florida Dozier School for Boys opened in 1900 and didn t close until 2011 In this novel, it is renamed the Nickel Academy and the story is partially based upon true events that took place during the early 1960 s Some of the boys, both black and white, had committed crimes while others didn t have families or were runaways The school didn t provide an academic education or help of any kind Instead, these young boys ages 18 21 were subjected to brutal beatings, sexual abuse, and unimaginable torture which led many to their deaths Elwood winds up at the school by making an innocent decision with unforeseeable consequences Being a southern town in the deep south during the 1960 s, the court s decision was racist Once incarcerated, Elwood finds friendship with fellow captive in the cynical Turner The novel follows these boys as they try to survive the hellish prison It is harrowing to know the abuses at this school continued into the 21st century Whitehead is saying, Look at this I looked and so should you.
I m the author of the novels Zone One Sag Harbor The Intuitionist, a finalist for the PEN Hemingway award John Henry Days, which won the Young Lions Fiction Award, the Anisfield Wolf Book Award, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and Apex Hides the Hurt, winner of the PEN Oakland Award I ve also written a book of essays about my home town, The Colossus of New York, and a non fiction ac
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- The Nickel Boys
- Colson Whitehead
- 06 November 2019 Colson Whitehead