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Book Review: “The Nickel Boys”

The Nickel Boys

Colson Whitehead

Hardcover, 224 pages

Publication Date: July 16, 2019

Publisher: Doubleday

Genre: Historical Fiction

Colson Whitehead is on a roll. He has won over a dozen awards for his work, which includes seven novels and two nonfiction books. Whitehead made headlines everywhere with his 2016 novel “The Underground Railroad,” which won the National Book Award, the Carnegie Medal, the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

All of these accolades set the stage for Whitehead’s newest release, “The Nickel Boys.” Ahead of its release, Whitehead was featured on the cover of Time Magazine, hailed as “America’s storyteller.” After reading “The Nickel Boys,” I have to agree.

Online photo.

While “The Nickel Boys” is a work of fiction, it is based on the real Dozier School for Boys, a reform school located in Florida which operated from 1900-2011. The closed school made news in 2012 when allegations of torture and murder of the students were finally investigated by Florida officials and the University of South Florida. The university investigation discovered 55 graves on the school’s property in 2012 alone, and even more graves were discovered in the following years.

“The Nickel Boys” explores a fictional version of Dozier, seen through the eyes of the boys who were imprisoned there. Set in Florida during the Civil Rights Movement, the story opens with Elwood, a high school student inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. and preparing to take college classes. An unfortunate decision ends up with Elwood arrested and sent to the Nickel Academy.

While there, Elwood’s mind and body are pushed beyond their limits as he quickly learns Nickel is not what it claims to be. As he struggles with the decision to accept his fate or attempt to rise above it, Elwood makes friends at the school and toys with the idea of escape. Although I will refrain from spoilers, “The Nickel Boys” does feature “flash-forwards” featuring an adult Elwood, so readers know early on he does indeed escape Nickel.

The future portions of the book are just as riveting and painful as the account of Elwood’s time at Nickel. As an adult approaching old age, Elwood finds himself still trying to make sense of his life after his time at Nickel. The ending was poignant and certainly not what I was expecting. I actually gasped out loud at one point.

“The Nickel Boys” deserves all of the promotion and praise it has received. Whitehead is known as an influential writer who has not received a Master of Fine Arts degree, resisting the stereotype of the “best” authors holding this degree. Whitehead’s prose is devoid of academic pretentiousness: He is there to tell a story, and he does it excellently.

“The Nickel Boys” is not a long novel, but its steady pace assures an interesting read until the end. Plenty happens in this book, and the readability only serves to magnify the plot. It was gut-wrenching, sad and introspective, and all of these emotions are compounded by the “based on a true story” aspect.

Whitehead resurrects a dark and little-known facet of American history for the public eye. While tragedy inspired his book, Whitehead did a service to all those who suffered at Dozier by bringing their plight into mainstream attention.

Whitehead’s latest is easily a five-star read, and history buff or not, you need to check this out. Meanwhile, I will be reading the rest of Whitehead’s catalog. He is too good to ignore.

Paige Holmes is a senior journalism major from Topeka, KS. Reading is her favorite thing to do because it teaches one how to think, imagine and live. Paige believes there is no better way to learn something or be entertained than by reading a book. Her favorite genre of books is fantasy/thriller and her favorite book is ‘Opening Moves’ by Steven James.

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