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The Nickel Boys

A Novel
Length: 6 hrs and 46 mins
Categories: Fiction, African-American
4.5 out of 5 stars (2,053 ratings)

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Interview: Colson Whitehead shares why he was called to examine the horrific activities in one Florida reform school through the eyes of a young black boy in his follow-up to the award-winning Underground Railroad.

Pulitzer Prize-Winner Colson Whitehead's The Nickel Boys Uses Fiction To Confront A Tragic Past.

  • The Nickel Boys
  • Pulitzer Prize-Winner Colson Whitehead's The Nickel Boys Uses Fiction To Confront A Tragic Past.

Publisher's Summary

New York Times Best Seller 

Longlisted for the National Book Award

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

"In an unvarnished performance, JD Jackson captures the inevitable aftermath of America's buried legacy of racism and violence.... The intricate, compact story is comparatively light on dialogue, and Jackson's deep, gravelly voice remains steady while navigating the often harsh narrative. However, when Elwood reflects on the words of Dr. King, Jackson transforms his voice to reflect their echoing impact and the stark contrast to the reality at hand." (AudioFile Magazine)

“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

Editor's Pick

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

What members say

Average Customer Ratings

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  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars
  • k teed
  • ibillinsly@gmail
  • 08-01-19

4.08 stars...

This audiobook is good, and the narrator is good. While I didn't love The Nickel Boys as much as many of the other reviewers did, it held my attention, and I was interested in the outcome. To me, it felt like a shortened version of a much longer tale, as if the original story had been hacked in to snippets by an overzealous editor. I found Whitehead's previous novel, The Underground Railroad, to be a better read/listen. It's still good, though.

Overall rating: 4.08 stars

10 of 12 people found this review helpful

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A New Classic

It's difficult for me to put into words how much this book has meant to me and impacted me.
It's an unforgettable story, that reaches deep down into your bones.

The author uses rich metaphors and beautifully descriptions to paint a harrowing picture of how hope mixes in with the meanness and blindness that evil can display.

It's not a dark book; in fact, it's the opposite. It is filled with hope, filled with a story of perseverance, and the importance self-definition and resilience.

To me, it represents a story about boys and men. How they impact each other, in productive and non-productive, and very harmful ways. It's also a story about friendship and connection, when most of your life has lacked those two vital things.

I've sent a copy to all of my friends, begging them to read it. As a woman, I think it's important to recognize that the environment men were raised in, and how it deeply impacts their present day reality.

13 of 16 people found this review helpful

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not bad really

After experiencing The Underground Railroad, this one left me feeling at times uninterested. It's a topic that has been done before, like with the novel Sleepers, in terms of abuse at a school for boys. Possibly due to the lack of character exploration in this one, I did not sympathize for the boys as much as I felt that I should. I'm on the fence about the narration.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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Possible written for high school students

I expect this will be a great pick for high school literature classes. The topic should provide a LOT of great discussion. However, students will certainly not gain a lot of depth about the reform school subject and its impact on discrimination from this book. Luckily, Whitehead provides his resources in the epilogue.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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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

10 of 13 people found this review helpful

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The Social History Beats the Narrative

Important and interesting social history and a fine and unexpected ending make this book worth listening to even though the narrative and the narration are a bit dull.

4 of 5 people found this review helpful

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  • ilene
  • palm desert, CA, United States
  • 07-22-19

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.

6 of 8 people found this review helpful

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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.

6 of 8 people found this review helpful

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    3 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars

Good, but lacking

This is an overall good book. The book reads as if the story should be longer, but is cut short for some reason.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Painfully boring, couldn't finish it. A waste.

This book was not only boring but terribly disturbing. Repeating the abuse over and over got old quick. It was a waste of money and time.

3 of 4 people found this review helpful