"After reading The Underground Railroad, I wondered if Colson Whitehead would be remembered in the same way we remember Virginia Woolf or Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Now I’m certain he will be after reading the masterful work that is The Nickel Boys. The first part of the book is simple and beautiful, almost domestic. I would have been satisfied reading about the normalcy of everyday life forever, as long as Whitehead was behind the pen. But he doesn’t let his readers off that easily. Whitehead writes pain and the struggle of human morality in a way that reaches straight to the soul. He could easily make a living writing about the comfortable things, but he doesn’t. This story of Elwood Curtis—a boy placed unfairly in a juvenile prison in Jim Crow Florida—will have any reader weeping from the unfairness and truth of it all, and rooting for Elwood to the point of desperation. Colson Whitehead writes the stories humanity will still need hundreds of years from now."
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 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 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 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 onto 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 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 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 that showcases a great American novelist writing at the height of his powers.