Review: The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

RATING: 10/10


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 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


“You can change the law but you can’t change people and how they treat each other”

The Nickel Boys just won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Colson Whitehead is the 4th author who won this award twice. This is my first Colson Whitehead book and I immediately fell in love with this book and his writing style. A truly deserved winner for the notorious Pulitzer Prize.

The Nickel Boys was inspired by the real life story of the Dozier School for Boys in Florida. In this reformatory school, children were violently abused by the staffs and teachers albeit physically, sexually and mentally. Children were even murdered and buried on the school grounds. A team of anthropologists from the University of Florida were authorized by the government in 2012 to identify the remains and burials. Those who managed to survive or left the school are deeply scared for their entire life.

Apart from introducing the Dozier School for Boys via the Nickel Academy in this book, Whitehead also instilled racism and the treatment of negros in the 1960s. I was introduced to the enforcement of racial segregation in the 1960s via the Jim Crow laws, the impact of the case of Brown v The Board of Education as well as the beliefs of Martin Luther King Jr. While it seems like there’s a lot of information being introduced in this book, my reading experience is rather pleasant as it does not feel like info-dumping to me. This is mainly due to Whitehead’s impeccable writing skills where he instills these information subtly throughout the story. The plot twist is also great and I really did not see the twist coming after being bombarded by the dark and unforgettable experience of the students in the Nickel Academy.

If you are interested in the Nickel Boys, be prepared for an emotional reading experience. A strong 10/10 star rating from me!

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