By Colson Whitehead, A descent into the horrors of a reform school in Jim Crow-era America
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead (to be released July 16, 2019) has been one of my most anticipated books of this year. With its lean profile running just over 200 pages and bold red cover, it tells a harrowing story about two boys in a reform school in Jim Crow-era America.
Also see the Full Synopsis & Chapter-by-Chapter Summary for The Nickel Boys. For the spoiler-free version:
Elwood Curtis is a straight-laced and principled boy growing up in the black neighborhood of Frenchtown in Tallahassee, Florida. He works hard and has dreams of participating in the black civil rights struggle.
An unlucky encounter lands him in Nickel Academy, a state-sponsored reform school for boys. There, Elwood meets Turner and a host of other black boys looking to navigate the system and work their way out.
On first glance, Nickel appears innocuous, with its neatly kept lawns and red-brick buildings, but harsh and horrific realities gradually set in. Through these boys, Whitehead provides a glimpse into Jim Crow-era America, its grisly secrets and its lessons on human nature and racial inequality.
See it on Amazon.
The Nickel Boys opens with the discovery of a secret grave full of buried, unidentified bodies located on the campus of what used to be Nickel Academy, a reform school for troubled juveniles. Where those bodies came from and who they belong to are the questions that initially propel the story forward.
The book then traces the paths of two boys who become friends at Nickel Academy.
Elwood and Turner are each intelligent and industrious in their own way, but their differing life circumstances have given them contrasting outlooks on life. Elwood is trusting and idealistic. He believes whole-heartedly in the message of Dr. King and the promise of a better tomorrow. Turner, meanwhile, is on his second stint at Nickel and is a realist. He is artful and doggedly pragmatic.
To read The Nickel Boys is to be drawn slowly into the horrors of Jim Crow-era America and its muti-faceted history. It’s a time filled with signs of progress, but also deeply entrenched racial inequality. The memories of people in chains remains imprinted in the laws and institutions of the land.
When the book starts, it lures you in with a bright and hopeful tone and only a few mentions at the edges about the harsher realities of life for Elwood. I’m warning you now, do not fall for it. It’s a gradual descent, but the savagery of Nickel Academy runs deep and dark.
There are no gimmicks in The Nickel Boys. The writing is straight-forward and understated, but evocative.
In lieu of gratuitous descriptions of violence, Whitehead lets circumstances speak for themselves. And instead of dramatizing each piece of information like a kicker in a chapter of a cookie-cutter genre thriller, events occur naturally. The slow realizations are often more chilling as they they dawn on you later. When he finally does throw in a legitimate kicker, it’s a punch to the gut.
The book is powerful because the story is solid and insightful. It’s also incisive and tragic and appalling. Each sentence is purposeful, which amplifies their collective impact as the story’s resonance ramps up into a terrible crescendo at the very end.
The Real Nickel Academy: Florida’s Dozier School For Boys
Lest you are comforted by the fact that Nickel Academy is fictional, Whitehead writes in the acknowledgements that he based The Nickel Boys on a real reform school, the Dozier School For Boys.
Like in the opener of this novel, many of the secrets of Dozier’s horrific past lay in the unmarked graves that were found near its campus. And the New York Times notes that “graves were still being discovered after Whitehead’s novel went to press.”
Similarly, the circumstances that land Elwood in Nickel Academy are borrowed from Jerry Cooper’s experiences with Dozier, as recounted in NPR.
This book made me cry, which upset my dog. She ran under my desk and wouldn’t sit on my lap anymore. That was a bummer. I bribed her with treats to get her to come back, but then she ran off again.
Read it or Skip it?
With a number of the last few books I’ve read, I’ve felt very ready for them to be over towards the end. Nickel Boys never wore out its welcome for me, despite its grisly contents. When it ended, I immediately wanted to go back through and skim for details I might have missed the first time through.
If you generally read books about race, you are most likely going to see tons of fantastic reviews about this book and read this book regardless of anything I have to say, so I’ll address this to everyone else.
I would encourage people who don’t often read books about race to give this one a shot. Both in style and substance, The Nickel Boys is such a solid, insightful novel. It’s short and written in a straightforward, but powerful way. You can read this in one afternoon. And while the book is set in the not-so-distant past, the things it has to say about injustice and race and human nature are very much relevant in our still-troubled present.
Is this a book that’s on your reading list? Or if you’ve read it, what did you think? See the Nickel Boys on Amazon.
Detailed Book Summary (Spoilers)
Chapter by Chapter Summary
If this summary was useful to you, please consider supporting this site by leaving a tip ($1, $2, or $4) or joining the Patreon!See The Nickel Boys on Amazon.