“Based on the chilling (though not as shocking as it should be) history of a reform school in Florida, Whitehead renders a powerful narrative about the cruel ways society not only fails but actively damages marginalized groups of people.
Profiled and sent to Nickel Academy for a crime he didn’t commit, Elwood is a brilliant and non-violent Black boy who witnesses and endures immeasurable abuse. Where this could have felt like a spectacle, Whitehead is never gratuitous in inflicting horrors on his fully realized characters and his masterful writing allows the reader to sit with the experience.
He allows space for the indictment of the less tangible horrors that make such brutality possible: the continuity of racist mindsets and the ways in which the minds that formed and upheld and enhanced Jim Crow laws still exist and even prosper today.”
It’s the early 1960s, and as the Civil Rights movement begins to reach segregated Tallahassee, the young, deeply principled Elwood Curtis takes the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to heart: he is “as good as anyone.” He is about to enroll in the local black college, but for a black boy in the Jim Crow South, one innocent mistake is enough to destroy the future. Elwood is sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy, a grotesque chamber of horrors where the sadistic staff beats and sexually abuses the students, corrupt officials 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 on to 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 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 more than a century and scarred the lives of thousands of children, The Nickel Boys is a devastating, riveting narrative that showcases a great American novelist writing at the height of his powers.