Book Review: The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

The Nickel Boys
Colson Whitehead

I don’t know how I can properly review a book that has already received as much recognition and praise as The Nickel Boys, except to join the crowd in saying how great I think this novel is. I read The Underground Railroad over the summer and thought it was excellent (read my review here). I think The Nickel Boys is even better, if that’s possible.

The Nickel Boys is the fictional story of Elwood Curtis, a young black boy growing up during the 1960s in Tallahassee, Florida. His mother and father are long gone and he’s raised by his grandmother Harriet, who introduces Elwood to the powerful words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Elwood is smart, ambitious and on his way to something better when he’s unfairly sentenced to time at the Nickel Academy, a reform school for boys in Florida. He arrives at Nickel as a Grub and hopes to earn his way out, through the ranks of Explorer, Pioneer and Ace. But rules and punishments are both random and cruel, with no guarantees of getting out. Administrators use brutal physical and sexual abuse to control their charges and it’s even worse for the black boys in this segregated institution.

Elwood hangs on Dr. King’s words for comfort and strength, hoping that “the ultimate decency that lived in every human heart” would carry him through his time at Nickel. He soon makes friends with another black boy named Turner, who has a different strategy for survival. Early on, Turner tells Elwood,

The key to in here is the same as surviving out there—you got to see how people act, and then you got to figure out how to get around them like an obstacle course. If you want to walk out of here.

He adds,

Nobody else is going to get you out—just you.

The friendship between Elwood and Turner influences both their thoughts and actions. They both want their freedom, but they have different ideas about how to get it, if they can. Their friendship and what they do with their ideas are at the heart of the story and its aftermath, better experienced first-hand. I highly recommend The Nickel Boys. On top of being a great story, it’s a powerful reminder of the history of racial injustice and the abuse of power and its continued effects on modern thinking.

Although The Nickel Boys is fictional, Whitehead based the Nickel Academy on the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida. The reform school was established in 1900 and had a reputation for cruel and violent abuse, resulting in many deaths at the school. Several investigations between 2009 and 2011 confirmed the abuse and the state closed the school in 2011. An archaeological investigation uncovered fifty-five burials on the school grounds, most outside the cemetery, with nearly one hundred deaths at the school. Further investigations discovered additional graves.

Colson Whitehead is an American author of seven novels and two books of nonfiction. The Underground Railroad (2016) won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award for Fiction. The Nickel Boys (2019) won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Visit for more about Colson Whitehead and his books.

These nonfiction books tell the story of the abuses at the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida:

The White House Boys: An American Tragedy by Roger Dean Kiser

The Boys of the Dark: A Story of Betrayal and Redemption in the Deep South by Robin Gaby Fisher

Here’s an excellent article and interview from Time:

‘I Carry It Within Me.’ Novelist Colson Whitehead Reminds Us How America’s Racist History Lives On – from June 27, 2019

Have you read any books by Colson Whitehead? Do you think you would read The Nickel Boys? Leave a comment and tell me what you think.

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!

32 thoughts on “Book Review: The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

  1. Hi Barbara,

    Great review! I’ve read both books that remain a part of my bookcase collection, and they are excellent. But, I also found the stories difficult to read knowing they’re based on appalling historical events. I highly recommend them, as well. 💓

  2. I was so pleased to receive back from someone my copy I loaned her of the Underground Railroad. I had no idea to whom I’d loaned it. That novel really got to me. I’ve heard of The Nickel Boys – how CAN it be better than The Underground Railroad? Thanks for your lovely review Barbara, I will look it out.

    1. Hi Susan – glad you got your copy of The Underground Railroad back – that’s a keeper. I thought both these books were great, but for some reason The Nickel Boys really got me. Thanks for the visit 🙂

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