The Nickel Boys by Colson WhiteheadThe Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

The Nickel Boys

byColson Whitehead

Hardcover | July 16, 2019

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In this bravura follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize–and National Book Award–winning #1 New York Times bestseller The Underground Railroad, 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 Florida.
 
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 Jr. to heart: He is "as good as anyone." Abandoned by his parents, but kept on the straight and narrow by his grand-mother, Elwood is a high school senior about to start classes at a local college. But for a black boy in the Jim Crow South of 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 that the delinquent boys in its 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 that Elwood is worse than naive, that the world is crooked, and that 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 with repercussions that 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 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.
COLSON WHITEHEAD is the author of nine books of fiction and nonfiction, including The Underground Railroad, which was a #1 New York Times bestseller and won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. A recipient of MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships, he lives in New York City.
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Title:The Nickel BoysFormat:HardcoverProduct dimensions:224 pages, 8.5 × 5.8 × 0.92 inShipping dimensions:8.5 × 5.8 × 0.92 inPublished:July 16, 2019Publisher:Doubleday CanadaLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0385693966

ISBN - 13:9780385693967

Reviews

From the Author

In this bravura follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning #1 New York Times bestseller The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead brilliantly dramatizes another strand of history through the story of two boys sentenced to a hellish reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida.As the Civil Rights movement begins to reach the black enclave of Frenchtown in segregated Tallahassee, Florida, 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 American 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 true 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 that showcases a great American novelist writing at the height of his powers.

Read from the Book

Prologue Even in death the boys were trouble. The secret graveyard lay on the north side of the Nickel campus, in a patchy acre of wild grass between the old work barn and the school dump. The field had been a grazing pasture when the school operated a dairy, selling milk to local customers—one of the state of Florida’s schemes to relieve the taxpayer burden of the boys’ upkeep. The developers of the office park had earmarked the field for a lunch plaza, with four water features and a concrete bandstand for the occasional event. The discovery of the bodies was an expensive complication for the real estate company awaiting the all clear from the environmental study, and for the state’s attorney, which had recently closed an investigation into the abuse stories. Now they had to start a new inquiry, establish the identities of the deceased and the manner of death, and there was no telling when the whole damned place could be razed, cleared, and neatly erased from history, which everyone agreed was long overdue.All the boys knew about that rotten spot. It took a student from the University of South Florida to bring it to the rest of the world, decades after the first boy was tied up in a potato sack and dumped there. When asked how she spotted the graves, Jody said, “The dirt looked wrong.” The sunken earth, the scrabbly weeds. Jody and the rest of the archaeology students from the university had been excavating the school’s official cemetery for months. The state couldn’t dispose of the property until the remains were properly resettled, and the archaeology students needed field credits. With stakes and wire they divided the area into search grids, dug with hand shovels and heavy equipment. After sifting the soil, bones and belt buckles and soda bottles lay scattered on their trays in an inscrutable exhibit. The Nickel Boys called the official cemetery Boot Hill, from the Saturday matinees they had enjoyed before they were sent to the school and exiled from such pastimes. The name stuck, generations later, with the South Florida students who’d never seen a Western in their lives. Boot Hill was just over the big slope on the north campus. The white concrete X’s that marked the graves caught the sunlight on bright afternoons. Names were carved into two-thirds of the crosses; the rest were blank. Identification was dif-ficult, but competition between the young archaeologists made for constant progress. The school records, though incomplete and haphazard, narrowed down who WILLIE 1954 had been. The burned remains accounted for those who perished in the dormitory fire of 1921. DNA matches with surviving family members—the ones the university students were able to track down— reconnected the dead to the living world that proceeded without them. Of the forty-three bodies, seven remained unnamed. The students piled the white concrete crosses in a mound next to the excavation site. When they returned to work one morning, someone had smashed them into chunks and dust.Boot Hill released its boys one by one. Jody was excited when she hosed down some artifacts from one of the trenches and came across her first remains. Professor Carmine told her that the little flute of bone in her hand most likely belonged to a raccoon or other small animal. The secret graveyard redeemed her. Jody found it while wandering the grounds in search of a cell signal. Her professor backed up her hunch, on account of the irregularities at the Boot Hill site: all those fractures and cratered skulls, the rib cages riddled with buckshot. If the remains from the official cemetery were suspicious, what had befallen those in the unmarked burial ground? Two days later cadaver-sniffing dogs and radar imaging confirmed matters. No white crosses, no names. Just bones waiting for someone to find them.“They called this a school,” Professor Carmine said. You can hide a lot in an acre, in the dirt.One of the boys or one of their relatives tipped off the media. The students had a relationship with some of the boys at that point, after all the interviews. The boys reminded them of crotchety uncles and flinty characters from their old neighborhoods, men who might soften once you got to know them but never lost that hard center. The archaeology students told the boys about the second burial site, told the family members of the dead kids they’d dug up, and then a local Tallahassee station dispatched a reporter. Plenty of boys had talked of the secret graveyard before, but as it had ever been with Nickel, no one believed them until someone else said it.The national press picked up the story and people got their first real look at the reform school. Nickel had been closed for three years, which explained the savagery of the grounds and the standard teenage vandalism. Even the most innocent scene—a mess hall or the football field—came out sinister, no photographic trickery necessary. The footage was unsettling. Shadows crept and trembled at the corners and each stain or mark looked like dried blood. As if every image caught by the video rig emerged with its dark nature exposed, the Nickel you could see going in and then the Nickel you couldn’t see coming out.If that happened to the harmless places, what do you think the haunted places looked like?Nickel Boys were cheaper than a dime-a-dance and you got more for your money, or so they used to say. In recent years, some of the former students organized support groups, reuniting over the internet and meeting in diners and McDonald’s. Around someone’s kitchen table after an hour’s drive. Together they performed their own phantom archaeology, digging through decades and restoring to human eyes the shards and artifacts of those days. Each man with his own pieces. He used to say, I’ll pay you a visit later. The wobbly stairs to the schoolhouse basement. The blood squished between my toes in my tennis shoes. Reassembling those fragments into confirmation of a shared darkness: If it is true for you, it is true for someone else, and you are no longer alone.Big John Hardy, a retired carpet salesman from Omaha, maintained a website for the Nickel Boys with the latest news. He kept the others apprised on the petition for another investigation and how the statement of apology from the government was coming along. A blinking digital widget kept track of the fund-raising for the proposed memorial. E-mail Big John the story of your Nickel days and he’d post it with your picture. Sharing a link with your family was a way of saying, This is where I was made. An explanation and an apology. The annual reunion, now in its fifth year, was strange and necessary. The boys were old men now, with wives and ex-wives and children they did or didn’t talk to, with wary grandchildren who were brought around sometimes and those whom they were prevented from seeing. They had managed to scrape up a life after leaving Nickel or had never fit in at all with normal people. The last smokers of cigarette brands you never see, late to the self-help regimens, always on the verge of disappearing. Dead in prison, or decomposing in rooms they rented by the week, frozen to death in the woods after drinking turpentine. The men met in the conference room of the Eleanor Garden Inn to catch up before caravaning out to Nickel for the solemn tour. Some years you felt strong enough to head down that concrete walkway, knowing that it led to one of your bad places, and some years you didn’t. Avoid a building or stare it in the face, depending on your reserves that morning. Big John posted a report after each reunion for those who couldn’t make it. In New York City there lived a Nickel Boy who went by the name of Elwood Curtis. He’d do a web search on the old reform school now and then, see if there were any developments, but he stayed away from the reunions and didn’t add his name to the lists, for many reasons. What was the point? Grown men. What, you take turns handing each other Kleenex? One of the others posted a story about the night he parked outside Spencer’s house, watching the windows for hours, the silhouette figures inside, until he talked himself out of revenge. He’d made his own leather strap to use on the superintendent. Elwood didn’t get it. Go all that way, might as well follow through.When they found the secret graveyard, he knew he’d have to return. The clutch of cedars over the TV reporter’s shoulder brought back the heat on his skin, the screech of the dry flies. It wasn’t far off at all. Never will be.

Editorial Reviews

A New York Times BestsellerLonglisted for the 2019 National Book AwardsWinner of the 2019 Kirkus Prize for Fiction"A necessary read." —President Barack Obama"This is a powerful book by one of America's great writers. . . . Without sentimentality, in as intense and finely crafted a book as you'll ever read, Whitehead tells a story of American history that won’t allow you to see the country in the same way again." —Toronto Star"Colson Whitehead continues to make a classic American genre his own. . . . The narration is disciplined and the sentences plain and sturdy, oars cutting into water. Every chapter hits its marks. . . . Whitehead comports himself with gravity and care, the steward of painful, suppressed histories; his choices on the page can feel as much ethical as aesthetic. The ordinary language, the clear pane of his prose, lets the stories speak for themselves. . . . Whitehead has written novels of horror and apocalypse; nothing touches the grimness of the real stories he conveys here" —The New York Times"Inspired by a real school in Florida, The Nickel Boys is a haunting narrative that reinforces Whitehead's prowess as a leading voice in American literature." —TIME"[The Nickel Boys] should further cement Whitehead as one of his generation's best." —Entertainment Weekly "Were Whitehead’s only aim to shine an unforgiving light on a redacted chapter of racial terrorism in the American chronicle, that would be achievement enough. What he is doing in his new novel, as in its immediate predecessor, is more challenging than that. . . . He applies a master storyteller’s muscle. . . . The elasticity of time in The Nickel Boys feels so organic that only when you put the book down do you fully appreciate that its sweep encompasses much of the last century as well as this one. . . . A writer like Whitehead, who challenges the complacent assumption that we even fathom what happened in our past, has rarely seemed more essential.” —The New York Times Book Review"A masterpiece squared, rooted in history and American mythology and, yet, painfully topical in its visions of justice and mercy erratically denied...a great American novel."  -- Maureen Corrigan, NPR.org"Whitehead's brilliant examination of America's history of violence is a stunning novel of impeccable language and startling insight." —Publishers Weekly, starred review"Whitehead's magnetic characters exemplify stoicism and courage, and each supremely crafted scene smolders and flares with injustice and resistance, building to a staggering revelation. Inspired by an actual school, Whitehead's potently concentrated drama pinpoints the brutality and insidiousness of Jim Crow racism with compassion and protest. . . . A scorching work." —Booklist, starred review"[A] stunning new novel. . . . The understated beauty of his writing, combined with the disquieting subject matter, creates a kind of dissonance that chills the reader. Whitehead has long had a gift for crafting unforgettable characters, and Elwood proves to be one of his best. . . . The final pages of the book are a heartbreaking distillation of the story that preceded them; it's a perfect ending to a perfect novel. The Nickel Boys is a beautiful, wrenching act of witness, a painful remembrance of an 'infinite brotherhood of broken boys,' and it proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Whitehead is one of the most gifted novelists in America today." —NPR"Magnificent. . . . Whitehead's prose is meticulous; he nimbly shifts between the 1960s and present day, creating a fully fleshed-out picture of violence and (in)justice." —Buzzfeed"Colson Whitehead's follow-up to The Underground Railroad is devastating and powerful, a harrowing novelization on another dark aspect of American history. . . . Never didactic, but always illuminating—even in those darkest of places in our collective story—The Nickel Boys is a brilliant, horrifying look into the legacy of Jim Crow, and the ways in which racism and oppression don't exist in defiance to the American Dream, but rather as its fuel." —NYLON"[The Nickel Boys's] dialogue, the efficient character sketches and the unobtrusive but always-advancing plot are evidence of mature ability . . . spry and animated and seamed with dark humor . . . [with] a dazzling final twist that Mr. Whitehead stages with such casual skill that one only begins to unpack its meanings well after the book has ended. . . . The excellence of The Nickel Boys carries an added feeling of hope because it's evidence of a gradual, old-fashioned artistic progression that fewer and fewer writers are allowed the time to pursue. . . . The Nickel Boys demonstrate the versatile gifts of a writer who is rounding into mastery. The impression left is that Mr. Whitehead can succeed at any kind of book he takes on. He has made himself one of the finest novelists in America." —The Wall Street Journal"Whitehead's new novel . . . is in many ways a continuation of his reassessment of African American history. But The Nickel Boys is no mere sequel . . . it's a surprisingly different kind of novel. . . . Whitehead reveals the clandestine atrocities of Nickel Academy with just enough restraint to keep us in a state of wincing dread. . . . It shreds our easy confidence in the triumph of goodness and leaves in its place a hard and bitter truth about the ongoing American experiment." —The Washington Post"You want to put it down because of how it makes you feel, but then you want to keep reading because the story's so engaging and gripping and you don't want to look away. . . . I would recommend highly that everyone read [The Nickel Boys]. . . . A powerful story by an amazing writer." —Trevor Noah, The Daily Show"Again [Whitehead is] wrestling with American history's reverberations. . . . Since its moral concern is multigenerational anguish, the sense of mourning in The Nickel Boys is subvisceral—not detached, but restrained. . . . We are called to remember, 'The past is never dead. It's not even past.'" —O: The Oprah Magazine"Possibly the single most anticipated novel of the year." —Los Angeles Times"A powerful meditation on suffering and injustice. . . . His subject could not be more demanding, but Whitehead's writing is spare and stately. He handles Elwood's and Turner's suffering—and questions—gently. And he holds the reader carefully. . . . For the darkest of tales, that is the most a writer can do." —Winnipeg Free Press"Whitehead's signature knack for creating unforgettable characters and spinning compelling stories out of even the darkest places is on display once again—and while it's not always an easy story to read, we'd venture to say it's essential." —Town and Country"If you thought Colson Whitehead's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Underground Railroad was a tour de force, wait until you get your hands on The Nickel Boys." —Harper’s Bazaar"The Nickel Boys is straight-ahead realism, distinguished by its clarity and its open conversation with other black writers: It quotes from or evokes the work of Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison and more. Whitehead has made an overt bid to stand in their company—to write a novel that’s memorable, and teachable, for years to come. The Nickel Boys is its fulfilment." —USA Today"The Nickel Boys is a strictly realist work, albeit still ripe with Whitehead's signature deadpan wit. . . . The heart of The Nickel Boys is this extended dialogue between Elwood and Turner . . . [and] often feels like Whitehead’s conversation with both the idealistic forerunners of the civil rights generation and, by implication, the woke youth of today. Like perhaps his single greatest influence, Ralph Ellison, Whitehead negotiates a tightrope walk between the need to depict the experience of race and racism and a stubborn individualistic resistance to the claims of collective identity." —Slate"[Whitehead's] prose here is elegant yet straightforward . . . these short sentences spur the action on, creating a pace that's almost as breath-taking as the novel's depiction of cruelty. . . . Whitehead's novel is certainly revelatory, but more for the ways in which it traces these atrocities to the past and present, weaving tragedy into multiple lifetimes. The Nickel Boys isn't just a testament to systemic racism; it’s an archaeology of pain." —A.V. Club"[The Nickel Boys is] a marvellous play between the real situation and a novelistic artifice—one which, in the end, proves to be inherent in the human story. . . . This is a heartbreakingly good novel. Its excellence doesn't lie in the attitude it takes to a social problem. . . . Rather, this is a book which should last because of the elegant refinement of its treatment, and the harmonious and deeply affecting balance it strikes between real-life conditions, and the requirements of the finest and most penetrating art." —The Spectator"[A] remarkable novel." —Roxane Gay, bestselling author of Bad Feminist"A gripping and brilliant novel based on a true story about a boys' reformatory school in Florida in the 1960s. Whitehead is one of the most daring and gifted authors writing these days, and I will never miss one of his books."—Elizabeth Gilbert, author of City of Girls"[Whitehead] is a splendidly talented writer, with more range than any other American novelist currently working—he can be funny, lyrical, satirical, earnest—whatever is needed by the work." —George Saunders, author of Lincoln in the Bardo,