Book review: The Nickel Boys — by Colson Whitehead

The Nickel Boys — by Colson Whitehead


Colson Whitehead’s “The Nickel Boys” is a masterpiece of fiction rooted firmly — and disturbingly — in fact. Inspired by the real life horrors which occurred at a boys’ reformatory in northern Florida well into the 2000’s, Whitehead brings to life the story of Elwood Curtis, a sweet, hardworking boy who, upon being arrested for unknowingly taking a ride in a stolen vehicle, is sent to Nickel Academy. There, Elwood experiences first-hand the segregation, discrimination, and humiliation — to put it mildly — his hero Dr. King spoke out against so eloquently on the well-worn recording his grandmother gave him in 1962. Elwood clings to King’s ideals of hope and reconciliation, determined to endure on faith, but his friend Turner has other ideas. While this is a novel of racial violence and injustice, it is the boys’ philosophical differences that is the book’s central tension: are people inherently good or are they essentially evil? The Nickel Boys moved me throughout my reading of it, and the ending caused me to, literally, drop the book — my jaw slack, my heart struck. I’d been disturbed and inspired, by evil and by good; what more can great literature promise? Whitehead, whom many readers know as the Pulitzer Prize winning author of “The Underground Railroad,” has again delivered a masterpiece.

— Reviewed by Becky Dayton of The Vermont Book Shop in Middlebury.


8 books by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad

Sag Harbor

The Intuitionist

Zone One

The Noble Hustle

The Colossus of New York

John Henry Days

Apex Hides the Hurt 

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