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The Nickel Boys

A Novel
Length: 6 hrs and 46 mins
4.5 out of 5 stars (102 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

In this bravura follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning number one New York Times best seller 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 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.

©2019 Colson Whitehead (P)2019 Random House Audio

Critic Reviews

“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)

"The acclaimed author of The Underground Railroad follows up with a leaner, meaner saga of Deep South captivity set in the mid-20th century and fraught with horrors more chilling for being based on true-life atrocities. There's something a tad more melodramatic in this book's conception (and resolution) than one expects from Whitehead, giving it a drugstore-paperback glossiness that enhances its blunt-edged impact." (Kirkus Review)

"Whitehead follows his dynamic, highly awarded, best-selling Civil War saga, The Underground Railroad, with a tautly focused and gripping portrait of two African American teens during the last vicious years of Jim Crow... 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." (Booklist Online)

Editorial Review

He’s done it again

Nobody does historical fiction like Colson Whitehead. His Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Underground Railroad knocked us all out in 2016 and I’m pretty sure The Nickel Boys is on that same trajectory. Based on a real reformatory school and set in the last years of Jim Crow, this story focuses on Elwood Curtis, a young black man trying to survive the horrors that go on within the grounds of The Nickel Academy—an institution more akin to a torturous prison than the academic institution it’s been advertised as. What keeps him going? The words of his hero, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and a belief that it will get better. The Nickel Boys is a beautiful and devastating story that gives a voice to the boys who were abused and killed at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys all those years ago. —Aaron S., Audible Editor

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One of the best books I’ve listened to.

I never really write reviews, but this was an excellent listen. Great story and narration. Disturbing to think it’s based on an actual institution.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Hard to Believe

This book is very well written and has the ability to take you into the lives of the characters. I had to put the book down several times to digest the horrors done to these young men.
This book is a serious representation of racism and injustice and the lasting internal and external scars of abuse.

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True life Jim Crow that tears my heart apart.

Unreal. A true story that is more than a disconcerting life experience. This is Jim Crow, alive and snarling . Do well written, I was there, a prisoner

2 of 4 people found this review helpful

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Remarkable story

This is an amazing story about the ability of the human spirit to survive the ugliest depths that others can sink to to prove themselves superior. It is terrifying and humorous in a account of survival and triumph

2 of 5 people found this review helpful

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Heartwrenching

Pulls you in from the first moment. Compelling, difficult chapter in our history. Very well-written.

1 of 3 people found this review helpful

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Wonderful

I loved it. I cried laughed and was shock at the end. I had heard about this story when it came out on a documentary.

1 of 5 people found this review helpful