The Nickel Boys

The Nickel Boys

by Colson Whitehead

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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385537087
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/16/2019
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 419
File size: 454 KB

About the Author

Colson Whitehead is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Underground Railroad, which in 2016 won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction and the National Book Award and was named one of the Ten Best Books of the Year by The New York Times Book Review, as well as The Noble Hustle, Zone One, Sag Harbor, The Intuitionist, John Henry Days, Apex Hides the Hurt, and The Colossus of New York. He is also a Pulitzer Prize finalist and a recipient of the MacArthur and Guggenheim Fellowships. He lives in New York City.

Colson Whitehead is available for select speakingengagements. To inquire about a possible appearance,please contact Penguin Random House Speakers Bureauat speakers@ or


Brooklyn, NY

Date of Birth:

November 6, 1969

Place of Birth:

New York, NY


Harvard College, BA in English & American Literature

Read an Excerpt

            Elwood received the best gift of his life on Christmas Day 1962, even if the ideas it put it in his head were his undoing. Martin Luther King At Zion Hill was the only album he owned and it never left the turntable. His grandmother Hattie had a few gospel records, which she only played when the world discovered a new mean way to work on her, and Elwood wasn’t allowed to listen to the Motown groups or popular songs like that on account of their licentious nature. The rest of his presents that year were clothes – a new red sweater, socks – and he certainly wore those out, but nothing endured such good and constant use as the record. Every scratch and pop it gathered over the months was a mark of his enlightenment, tracking each time he entered into a new understanding of the Reverend’s words. The crackle of truth.
            They didn’t have a TV set but Dr. King’s speeches were such a vivid chronicle -- containing all that the Negro had been and all that he would be -- that the record was almost as good as television. Maybe even better, grander, like the towering screen at the Davis Drive-In, which he’d been to twice. Elwood saw it all: Africans persecuted by the white sin of slavery, Negroes humiliated and kept low by segregation, and that luminous image to come, when all those places closed to his race were opened.
The speeches had been recorded all over, Detroit and Charlotte and Montgomery, connecting Elwood to the rights struggle across the country. One speech even made him feel like a member of the King family. Every kid had heard of Fun Town, been there or envied someone who had. In the third cut on Side A, Dr. King spoke of how his daughter longed to visit the amusement park on Stewart Ave in Atlanta. Yolanda begged her parents whenever she spotted the big sign from the expressway or the commercials came on TV. Dr. King had to tell her in his low, sad rumble about the segregation system that kept colored boys and girls on the other side of the fence. Explain the misguided thinking of some whites -- not all whites, but enough whites – that gave it force and meaning. He counseled his daughter to resist the lure of hatred and bitterness and assured her that “Even though you can’t go to Fun Town, you are as good as anyone who gets to go to Fun Town.”
That was Elwood -- good as anyone. A hundred miles south of Atlanta, in Tallahassee. Sometimes he saw a Fun Town commercial while visiting his cousins in Georgia. Lurching rides and happy music, chipper white kids lining up for the Wild Mouse Roller Coaster, Dick’s Mini Golf. Strap into the Atomic Rocket for a Trip to the Moon. A perfect report card guaranteed free admission, the commercials said, if your teacher stamped a red mark on it. Elwood got all A’s and kept his stack of evidence for the day they opened Fun Town to all God’s children, as Dr. King promised. “I’ll get in free every day for a month, easy,” he told his grandmother, lying on the front room rug and tracing a threadbare patch with his thumb.
His grandmother Hattie had rescued the rug from the alley behind the Richmond Hotel after the last renovation. The bureau in her room, the tiny table next to Elwood’s bed, and three lamps were also Richmond castoffs. Hattie had worked at the hotel since she was fourteen, when she joined her mother on the cleaning staff. Once Elwood entered high school, the hotel manager Mr. Parker made it clear he’d hire him as a porter whenever he wanted, smart kid like him, and the white man was disappointed when the boy began working at Marconi’s Tobacco & Cigars. Mr. Parker was always kind to the family, even after he had to fire Elwood’s mother for stealing.
Elwood liked the Richmond and he liked Mr. Parker, but adding a fourth generation to the hotel’s accounts made him uneasy in a way he found difficult to describe. Even before the encyclopedias. When he was younger, he sat on a crate in the hotel kitchen after school, reading comic books and Hardy Boys while his grandmother straightened and scrubbed upstairs. With both his parents gone, she preferred to have her nine-year-old grandson nearby instead of alone in the house. Seeing Elwood with the kitchen men made her think those afternoons were a kind of school in their own right, that it was good for him to be around men. The cooks and waiters took the boy for a mascot, playing hide and seek with him and peddling creaky wisdom on various topics: the white man’s ways, how to treat a good-time gal, strategies for hiding money around the house. Elwood didn’t understand what the older men talked about most of the time, but he nodded gamely before returning to his adventure stories.
After rushes, Elwood sometimes challenged the dishwashers to plate-drying races and they made a good-natured show of being disappointed by his superior skills. They liked seeing his smile and his odd delight at each win. Then the staff turned over. The new downtown hotels poached personnel, cooks came and went, a few of the waiters didn’t return after the kitchen reopened from the flood damage. With the change in staff, Elwood’s races changed from endearing novelty to mean-spirited hustle; the latest dishwashers were tipped off that the grandson of one the cleaning girls did your work for you if told him it was a game, keep on the lookout. Who was this serious boy who loitered around while the rest of them busted their asses, getting little pats on the head from Mr. Parker like he was a damn puppy, nose in a comic book like he hadn’t a care? The new men in the kitchen had different kinds of lessons to impart to a young mind. Stuff they’d learned about the world. Elwood remained unaware that the premise of the competition had changed. When he issued a challenge, everybody in the kitchen tried not to smirk.
Elwood was twelve when the encyclopedias appeared. One of the busboys dragged a stack of boxes into the kitchen and called for a powwow. Elwood squeezed in – it was a set of encyclopedias that a traveling salesman had left behind in one of the rooms upstairs. There were legends about the valuables that rich white people left in their rooms, but it was rare that this kind of plunder made it down to their domain. Barney the cook opened the top box and held up the leather-bound volume of Fisher’s Universal Encyclopedia, Aa-Be. He handed it to Elwood, who was surprised at how heavy it was, a brick with pages edged in red. The boy flipped through, squinting at the tiny words – Aegean, Argonaut, Archimedes – and had a picture of himself on the front room couch copying words he liked. Words that looked interesting on the page or that sounded interesting in his imagined pronunciations.
Cory the busboy offered up his find – he didn’t know how to read and had no immediate plans to learn. Elwood made his bid. Given the personality of kitchen, it was hard to think of anyone else who’d want the encyclopedias. Then Pete, one of the new dishwashers, said he’d race him for it.
Pete was a gawky Texan who’d started working two months prior. He was hired to bus tables, but after a few incidents they moved him to the kitchen. He looked over his shoulder when he worked, as if worried about being watched, and didn’t talk much, although his gravelly laughter made the other men in kitchen direct their jokes toward him over time. Pete wiped his hands on his pants and said, “We got time before the dinner service, if you’re up for it.”
The kitchen made a proper contest of it. The biggest yet. A stopwatch was produced and handed to Len, the gray-haired waiter who’d worked at the Hotel for over twenty years. He was meticulous about his black serving uniform, and maintained that he was always the best-dressed man in the dining room, putting the white patrons to shame. With his attention to detail, he’d make a dedicated referee. Two fifty-plate stacks were arranged, after a proper soaking supervised by Elwood and Pete. The two busboys acted as seconds for this duel, ready to hand over dry replacement rags when requested. A lookout stood at the kitchen door in case a manager happened by.
While not prone to bravado, Elwood had never lost a dish-drying contest in four years, and wore his confidence on his face. Pete had a concentrated air. Elwood didn’t perceive the Texan as a threat, having out-dried the man in prior competitions. Pete was, in general, a good loser.
Len counted down from ten, and they began. Elwood stuck to the method he’d perfected over the years, mechanistic and gentle. He’d never let a wet plate slip or chipped one by setting it on the counter too quickly. As the kitchen men cheered them on, Pete’s mounting stack of dried plates unnerved Elwood. The Texan had an edge on him, displaying new reserves. The on-lookers made astonished noises. Elwood hurried, chasing after the image of the encyclopedias in their front room.
Len said, “Stop!”
Elwood won by one plate. The men hollered and laughed and traded glances whose meaning Elwood would interpret later.
Harold, one of the busboys, slapped Elwood on the back. “You were made to wash dishes, slick.” The kitchen laughed.
Elwood returned volume Aa to Be to its box. It was a fancy reward.
“You earned it,” Peter said. “I hope you get a lot of use out of them.”
Elwood asked the housekeeping manager to tell his grandmother he’d see her at home. He couldn’t wait to see the look on her face when she saw the encyclopedia on their bookshelves, elegant and distinguished. He dragged the boxes to the bus stop on Tennessee, hunched. To see him from across the street – the serious young lad heaving his freight of the world’s knowledge – was to witness a scene that might have been illustrated by Norman Rockwell, if Elwood had had white skin.
At home, he cleared Hardy Boys and Tom Swifts from the green bookcase in the front room and unpacked the boxes. He paused with Ga, curious to see how the smart men at the Fisher company handled galaxy. The pages were blank – all of them. Every volume in the first box was blank except for the one he’d seen in the kitchen. He opened the other two boxes, his face getting hot. All the books were empty.
When his grandmother came home, she shook her head and told him maybe they were defective, or dummy copies the salesman showed to customers as samples, so they could see how a full set would look in their homes. That night in bed his thoughts ticked and hummed like a contraption. It occurred to him that the busboy, that all the men in the kitchen, had known the books were empty. That they had put on a show.
He kept the encyclopedias in the bookcase anyway. They looked impressive, even when the humidity peeled back the covers. The leather was fake, too.
The next afternoon in the kitchen was his last. Everyone paid too much attention to his face. Cory tested him with “How’d you like those books?” and waited for a reaction. Over by the sink Peter had a smile that looked as if it had been hacked into his jaw with a knife. They knew. His grandmother agreed that he was old enough to stay in the house by himself. Through high school, he went back and forth over the matter of whether the dishwashers had let him win all along. He’d been so proud of his ability, dumb and simple as it was. He never settled on one conclusion until he got to Nickel, which made the truth of the contests unavoidable.


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The Nickel Boys: A Novel 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 21 reviews.
Anonymous 7 months ago
This story make my heart hurt. Even though it is a work of fiction, research tells us that much of it probably really happened. Colton Whitehead is an incredible writer!
Samantha Downes 8 months ago
Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for providing me with an advanced copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. I was a fan of Colson Whitehead's last book The Underground Railroad. It was a very difficult read but a very good story. This book echoes that sentiment. It wasn't an easy read due to the subject matter but it was a very good story. Whitehead does an amazing job of developing the main character, Elwood Curtis. For some, they could probably remember the events that took place during the time frame of the book. Elwood's story begins in 1962 and he obsessively listens to a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. record over and over. He admires the civil rights movement leaders and mentions several key events in history. Whitehead does a great job of introducing Jim Crow era experiences to those like myself who could never imagine experiences as such. In my opinion, the best historical fiction is drawn from true stories and this was no exception. In Whitehead's previous novel, he introduces the story of a slave in the south and in this novel, he introduces a segregated reform school and the horrors that ensued within. I would recommend this book to those who were drawn to the writing of Whitehead either in "Underground Railroad" or prior. Fans of historical fiction should definitely read this and honestly, I think most Americans should read this because it is a story that isn't told often at all. Powerful and sticks with you long after finishing this short novel.
Anonymous 8 months ago
Picked this up as a quick summer read and was nearly unable to put it down. I finished this book in 3 days. It is a phenomenal read for fans of social justice, historical fiction, and historical nonfiction alike. Whitehead continues to be a literary force.
Anonymous 5 months ago
This book is is so well written.
MichelleKenneth 12 days ago
This is straight up 5/5 because it just seems wrong to give it anything less. Ethically, I couldn't do it. This book broke my heart over and over again. This is not a happy tale and the first 8 pages warns you of this. If you continue on, you will learn that for some Americans, freedom does not mean freedom for all. You will learn of the atrocities that happened to the Nickel Boys. You will begin to understand what it feels like to be a young black man in the 1960s. I'm telling ya, I knew about it, but this is the first time I actually felt what it felt like. It really broke my heart. The two instances where it really hit home was when he told the story of Dr. King's daughter seeing Fun Town, an amusement park, and wanting to go there. Her father responded that she would only be able to see the amusement park from outside the fence, because she wasn't the right color. The other instance was when the narrator said that you could go see Marlon Brando in the latest movie for 75 cents, if you were white. That part really hit hard for me, because I love the movies. To know that someone could not go because of the color of their skin? That part probably broke my heart the most...that exclusion that says you are not allowed to be happy or do fun things because you are not white. He uses Martin Luther King, Jr. speeches throughout this book. I highlighted every speech. Even though King was talking about the struggles of African Americans, I couldn't help but feel that those words are for anyone and everyone who is struggling with something going on in their life. His words rang true in my own heart and soul. This is what I mean when I say Dr. King's words are for anyone who is struggling. His words help you find peace. To me? That is just proof that Dr. King was doing God's work. His words still help you find peace no matter what your struggles are. The ending was an entire surprise. It was unexpected, but I felt like it was the perfect ending of honor. This book is historical fiction and I hope it did the Nickel Boys some justice. I can't stress enough that everyone needs to read this story. [Disclosure: I received an ARC from the publisher.]
Anonymous 29 days ago
If I had known there was dialog to speak of, I wouldn't have wasted my time or money. The book was boring, hard to follow because it kept digressing to other people's lives and incidents. I understand the basis for the story, but this book was nothing like the Orphan Train, which is what I expected. I won't recommend it, for sure.
Anonymous 3 months ago
This book is an essential must read.
Sandy5 4 months ago
I listened to this novel as I painted our fence in the backyard. This small, section of fence should have taken just a few hours but when I finally made my way back inside, I realized that my morning was gone and I was working into the afternoon. I know for a fact that I’d stopped a few times while painting, as I realized that I had become so involved in the story, that I couldn’t paint and listen at the same time. I guess I had done more reading than painting today but at least the fence was done. I just couldn’t believe what I was hearing. This was a true story. These individuals were young teens, young men being treated brutally, while everyone turned their backs on them. As these individuals told their stories, I kept reminding myself that this story had really occurred. This was supposed to be a reform school, a place where change occurs for the better. The boys were at Nickel Academy either because they were orphans or because of their behavior. They didn’t expect to be someone’s target, they didn’t deserve the harsh punishment and the brutality that they received. They most certainly didn’t deserve death. As I listened, I wondered how much longer the people in charge could continue this practice and get-away with it? Wasn’t there any checks and balances along the way? I cringed to think that these individuals would take their authority further and push the envelope. It angered and frustrated me that some individuals feel they have the right to behave this way to anyone or anything. I feel that it’s a powerful book, a book that allows their story to be told but now, I have more questions after reading this book, than I did when I first started. 4.5 stars
Anonymous 4 months ago
Thank you Mr. Whitehead for writing this important story and giving all of these tortured souls a voice. The writing in this book is lyrical and tells you more in the words it doesn't say than another book would tell you in ten pages. Mr. Whitehead's writing is beautiful and spares you the worst of the worst and forces the reader to use their mind to fill in the blanks. I found the words to be so much more powerful for what they didn't say. I can't recommend this book enough. It's a difficult subject but written so perfectly that you finish the book with a sense of hope instead of despair.
Anonymous 4 months ago
This books is haunting from the beginning. Knowing the terrible that must ooze from that place, knowing it will seep out of the upcoming pages. Coming from a place of privilege, I will never understand what this world can do to someone of color. My only hope is that I can be an advocate to learn from the past, stand up with people in the present to try and create a better future for all. This is not an easy beach read, but you should read it.
Anonymous 5 months ago
A great but poignant read. It s difficult to read childhood abuse regardless of race. Well written
Anonymous 5 months ago
A tragic and innocent mistake sends Elwood Curtis to a corrupt juvenile reformatory and deprives him of an upcoming college education. It's hard to believe that Jim Crow laws existed right up to the 1960s. Based on fact, bones were found in an "unofficial" cemetery after blacks were savagely beaten to death. I finished this in two days. Very well-written.
Anonymous 5 months ago
TalNole 6 months ago
What a fabulous must read! While it is a work of fiction, it is based on tragic events in America’s history. Read this book in a couple of days because I just couldn’t stop. My first book by Colson Whitehead, but definitely not my last.
TakingTime 6 months ago
3.75 stars - Thanks to Doubleday books for a chance to read and review this ARC. Published Jul 16, 2019. Another winner by Whitehead. Having read Underground Railroad I was excited to see this book. Although feeling that this book was somewhat milder than Underground Railroad, I did enjoy the twists and turns that this book provided. Whitehead based this fictional book on the true to life experiences of boys incarcerated at the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna Florida. In his acknowledgements he gives a number of other books and articles he used as reference for this book. In the early 60's as Martin Luther King started to become a household name, a young black boy hitched a ride and found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, all the while just trying to get to college. Having done nothing wrong, and just for the fact that he was black, Elwood was arrested and ended up being sent to the juvenile reformatory Nickel Academy. Nickel Academy, where young boys were sent, and some never returned. With the White House and Black Beauty hanging over them, they became slaves to "The Man', whether they were Caucasian or Negro. There were only 5 ways out - age out, have the court intervene, have family remove you, accumulate the needed amount of merits, or disappear. Often boys disappeared at the hands of the Academy - Elwood chose to run. There were some twists in this story that surprised me. Although a fictional story I believe for the most part Whitehead tried to tell the story of the Dozier School for Boys, then as is so like him, he added his own touch in the way of these twists and turns. Proving that is one of the reasons that Whitehead books are so worth the read.
Anonymous 6 months ago
FrancescaFB 7 months ago
smg5775 7 months ago
This is one time I cannot give a short synopsis of the book because I would give the story away. I didn't know what to expect as I opened the book but I read the majority of it in one afternoon. The Nickel Boys is well written. I knew it would be a difficult book to read especially since I have been reading a lot of non-fiction lately about the prison system and the Jim Crow laws. I expected it to be more graphic than it was. It is different from Mr. Whitehead's The Underground Railroad--no magical realism in sight. I am still absorbing so much of it as I write this. It is a powerful piece of writing and should be on everyone's list to read sooner rather than later.
Anonymous 7 months ago
Brings to life the history of the South in the mid-20th century, and the life of African Americans living there.
miareese 8 months ago
Upsetting. Powerful. Another deeper dive into the United State's exploitative history from Colson Whitehead. Obviously, I knew going into this that the subject was going to be a heavy-hitter, but I think I was still -somehow- caught off-guard by how devastating it was. The contrast between our main character, Elwood's, hope for the future -not just his future, but the future of African-Americans in general- and The Nickel Academy's disgusting brutality and bigotry was so upsetting. I went back and forth rooting for Elwood, being excited for all he could accomplish, and despairing over his circumstances, feeling sick to my stomach. Knowing that this book is fictionalized, but that this actually was a reality only 50 years ago is revolting. I hope everyone reads this, and I hope it angers them too.
Mizula 8 months ago
Heartbreaking. Certain to be a bookclub favorite and required reading for schools. The writing is clear, honest and bold. Pure bad luck lands a boy in a reform school that is not what it appears to be, he must nurture the dream in his heart if he is to survive. A hymn to friendship and a tragic view into American history.