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The Nickel Boys: A Novel Paperback – June 30, 2020
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New York Times Bestseller
Winner of The Kirkus Prize
Chosen by Publishers Weekly as one of the 10 Best Books of the Year
Longlisted for The National Book Award
"A necessary read." —President Barack Obama
"This is a powerful book by one of America's great writers. . . . Without sentimentality, in as intense and finely crafted a book as you'll ever read, Whitehead tells a story of American history that won’t allow you to see the country in the same way again." —Toronto Star
"Colson Whitehead continues to make a classic American genre his own. . . . The narration is disciplined and the sentences plain and sturdy, oars cutting into water. Every chapter hits its marks. . . . Whitehead comports himself with gravity and care, the steward of painful, suppressed histories; his choices on the page can feel as much ethical as aesthetic. The ordinary language, the clear pane of his prose, lets the stories speak for themselves. . . . Whitehead has written novels of horror and apocalypse; nothing touches the grimness of the real stories he conveys here" —The New York Times
"Inspired by a real school in Florida, The Nickel Boys is a haunting narrative that reinforces Whitehead's prowess as a leading voice in American literature." —TIME
"[The Nickel Boys] should further cement Whitehead as one of his generation's best." —Entertainment Weekly
"Were Whitehead’s only aim to shine an unforgiving light on a redacted chapter of racial terrorism in the American chronicle, that would be achievement enough. What he is doing in his new novel, as in its immediate predecessor, is more challenging than that. . . . He applies a master storyteller’s muscle. . . . The elasticity of time in The Nickel Boys feels so organic that only when you put the book down do you fully appreciate that its sweep encompasses much of the last century as well as this one. . . . A writer like Whitehead, who challenges the complacent assumption that we even fathom what happened in our past, has rarely seemed more essential.” —The New York Times Book Review
"A masterpiece squared, rooted in history and American mythology and, yet, painfully topical in its visions of justice and mercy erratically denied . . . a great American novel." —Maureen Corrigan, NPR.org
"Whitehead's brilliant examination of America's history of violence is a stunning novel of impeccable language and startling insight." —Publishers Weekly, starred review
"Whitehead's magnetic characters exemplify stoicism and courage, and each supremely craftedscene smolders and flares with injustice and resistance, building to a staggering revelation. Inspired by an actual school, Whitehead's potently concentrated drama pinpoints the brutality and insidiousness of Jim Crow racism with compassion and protest. . . . A scorching work." —Booklist, starred review
"[A] stunning new novel. . . . The understated beauty of his writing, combined with the disquieting subject matter, creates a kind of dissonance that chills the reader. Whitehead has long had a gift for crafting unforgettable characters, and Elwood proves to be one of his best. . . . The final pages of the book are a heartbreaking distillation of the story that preceded them; it's a perfect ending to a perfect novel. The Nickel Boys is a beautiful, wrenching act of witness, a painful remembrance of an 'infinite brotherhood of broken boys,' and it proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Whitehead is one of the most gifted novelists in America today." —NPR
"Magnificent. . . . Whitehead's prose is meticulous; he nimbly shifts between the 1960s and present day, creating a fully fleshed-out picture of violence and (in)justice." —Buzzfeed
"Colson Whitehead's follow-up to The Underground Railroad is devastating and powerful, a harrowing novelization on another dark aspect of American history. . . . Never didactic, but always illuminating—even in those darkest of places in our collective story—The Nickel Boys is a brilliant, horrifying look into the legacy of Jim Crow, and the ways in which racism and oppression don't exist in defiance to the American Dream, but rather as its fuel." —NYLON
"[The Nickel Boys's] dialogue, the efficient character sketches and the unobtrusive but always-advancing plot are evidence of mature ability . . . spry and animated and seamed with dark humor . . . [with] a dazzling final twist that Mr. Whitehead stages with such casual skill that one only begins to unpack its meanings well after the book has ended. . . . The excellence of The Nickel Boys carries an added feeling of hope because it's evidence of a gradual, old-fashioned artistic progression that fewer and fewer writers are allowed the time to pursue. . . . The Nickel Boys demonstrate the versatile gifts of a writer who is rounding into mastery. The impression left is that Mr. Whitehead can succeed at any kind of book he takes on. He has made himself one of the finest novelists in America." —The Wall Street Journal
"Whitehead's new novel . . . is in many ways a continuation of his reassessment of African American history. But The Nickel Boys is no mere sequel . . . it's a surprisingly different kind of novel. . . . Whitehead reveals the clandestine atrocities of Nickel Academy with just enough restraint to keep us in a state of wincing dread. . . . It shreds our easy confidence in the triumph of goodness and leaves in its place a hard and bitter truth about the ongoing American experiment." —The Washington Post
"Again [Whitehead is] wrestling with American history's reverberations. . . . Since its moral concern is multigenerational anguish, the sense of mourning in The Nickel Boys is subvisceral—not detached, but restrained. . . . We are called to remember, 'The past is never dead. It's not even past.'" —O: The Oprah Magazine
"Possibly the single most anticipated novel of the year." —Los Angeles Times
"A powerful meditation on suffering and injustice. . . . His subject could not be more demanding, but Whitehead's writing is spare and stately. He handles Elwood's and Turner's suffering—and questions—gently. And he holds the reader carefully. . . . For the darkest of tales, that is the most a writer can do." —Winnipeg Free Press
"Whitehead's signature knack for creating unforgettable characters and spinning compelling stories out of even the darkest places is on display once again—and while it's not always an easy story to read, we'd venture to say it's essential." —Town and Country
"If you thought Colson Whitehead's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Underground Railroad was a tour de force, wait until you get your hands on The Nickel Boys." —Harper’s Bazaar
"The Nickel Boys is straight-ahead realism, distinguished by its clarity and its open conversation with other black writers: It quotes from or evokes the work of Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison and more. Whitehead has made an overt bid to stand in their company—to write a novel that’s memorable, and teachable, for years to come. The Nickel Boys is its fulfilment." —USA Today
"The Nickel Boys is a strictly realist work, albeit still ripe with Whitehead's signature deadpan wit. . . . The heart of The Nickel Boys is this extended dialogue between Elwood and Turner . . . [and] often feels like Whitehead’s conversation with both the idealistic forerunners of the civil rights generation and, by implication, the woke youth of today. Like perhaps his single greatest influence, Ralph Ellison, Whitehead negotiates a tightrope walk between the need to depict the experience of race and racism and a stubborn individualistic resistance to the claims of collective identity." —Slate
"[Whitehead's] prose here is elegant yet straightforward . . . these short sentences spur the action on, creating a pace that's almost as breath-taking as the novel's depiction of cruelty. . . . Whitehead's novel is certainly revelatory, but more for the ways in which it traces these atrocities to the past and present, weaving tragedy into multiple lifetimes. The Nickel Boys isn't just a testament to systemic racism; it’s an archaeology of pain." —A.V. Club
"[The Nickel Boys is] a marvellous play between the real situation and a novelistic artifice—one which, in the end, proves to be inherent in the human story. . . . This is a heartbreakingly good novel. Its excellence doesn't lie in the attitude it takes to a social problem. . . . Rather, this is a book which should last because of the elegant refinement of its treatment, and the harmonious and deeply affecting balance it strikes between real-life conditions, and the requirements of the finest and most penetrating art." —The Spectator
"[A] remarkable novel." —Roxane Gay, bestselling author of Bad Feminist
"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
"[Whitehead] is a splendidly talented writer, with more range than any other American novelist currently working—he can be funny, lyrical, satirical, earnest—whatever is needed by the work." —George Saunders, author of Lincoln in the Bardo,
About the Author
- Lexile Measure : HL940L
- Item Weight : 8 ounces
- Paperback : 224 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0345804341
- ISBN-13 : 978-0345804341
- Product Dimensions : 5.15 x 0.65 x 7.85 inches
- Publisher : Anchor; Reprint Edition (June 30, 2020)
- Language: : English
- Best Sellers Rank: #891 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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This novel is powerful and poignant. The beatings and the abuse these young men suffered at the Nickel Academy were absolutely horrendous. Just think this Academy was in existence for 111 years...Wow...just wow.
Elwood Curtis was a Frenchtown boy and was sent to the Nickel Academy for allegedly stealing a car. There were 4 different ranks - Grub, Explorer, Pioneer and Ace. When the rank of Ace was attained, it meant graduation for the young man. If only one could make it that far...
Beatings were done at the White House and the advice given to Elwood was ' best not to move'. Black Beauty was the implement which was a strap with a wooden handle. And, abuse was prevalent on so many different levels. Made me absolutely sick to my stomach to read some of these incidents.
Just amazing to read this novel and it certainly aroused my empathy....and sadness and left my heart broken for these poor young boys. Equally sad to me was the fact that 7 of the bodies found were never identified.
The skills of the author are unparalleled in evoking the feeling that the reader is indeed present in their lives at the Academy. Clear, concise writing and just plain outstanding.
Most highly recommended and for multiple reasons. A must read, in my opinion, for anyone interested in this dark era. Although this is a novel, it certainly reads as though it is true.
This should have a Verified Purchase on it. Will check with Amazon to see why it doesn't. VP is there this AM. Thank you, Amazon...
Most crushing, most cruelly neither boy deserves his punishment --not that any teenager would deserve to have their youth smashed so thoroughly and so brutally. Elwood's only infraction is to hitch a ride in a car that is stolen (something he could not know); Turner was part of a crowd of boys beating a man for exposing himself to children. Elwood is the dreamer. He has internalized the speeches of the Reverend Dr. King. He has marched for civil rights and racial justice. He believes that one day black children and white children will be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. And El has character--an authentic dignity he insists upon and clings to in the face adversity and diminishing possibilities. Turner knows better--that black folk abandon their own, white folk divide, conquer and abuse. It's the way of the world. Or at least their world. Throughout Nickel Academythere is the recurring metaphor and image of a far-off amusement park called Fun House, representing that never-to-be-reached Promised Land for black children. Heartbreaking.
In just more than 200 pages Whitehead portrays a devastating panorama of iniquity and cruelty. As Nickel Boys moves to its inevitable denouement the reader realizes racial justice in this America is an illusory thing--perhaps an impossibility. What is possible though is to hold on to your dignity. To keep memory alive; hold on and survive; fashion a life out of ashes.. Some manage it. Others do not, but they are remembered. Such are the lives of Nickel Boys.
Top reviews from other countries
This book starts with an archaeological dig at a now closed boys' reform school. This is a stroke of genius. The period being disinterred is not some ancient native American site nor white settlers' site from centuries ago; it is a mere fifty years old and brings home the proximity of the crime the book goes on to expose to the light.
From the offset The Nickel Boys shows how the Nickel school is a condensed version of America and that the two - school and nation - coexist, each feeding, and feeding on, the same racist poisons as the other. Mr Whitehead has composed an arresting canvas of a "reform" school - no, institution; there is nothing resembling education or reform in the place - run and staffed by sadists with the connivance and sometimes willful ignorance of the " good " local grandees. Corruption by staff and by the beneficiaries of the boys' unpaid labour is rife. The violence is more hinted at than stated so we are left to focus on the moral and societal factors, not distracted by a verbal bloodbath.
Elwood, the central character, is a bright and decent boy of African/American descent sent to this appalling institution for an offence for which he did not have the necessary mens rea - he didn't know the car he was being given a lift in was stolen. Noone cared and Elwood, for his first and only offence is sent to Nickel School for reform. He was and remained a moral, free thinking, philosophical, bright kid who rides out his incarceration and sufferings with moral rectitude and a naiive belief in Martin Luther King's exhortation to love your oppressor. He was let down by his parents, by his lawyer and, eventually by the inspection team sent into Nickel School towards the end of the book.
Even in this appalling place the black inmates are treated worse than the white, reflecting again contemporary American society.
In the closing chapters there is a stunning, moving and wholly convincing turn in the story when… No, I won't spoil it but it will take your breath away.
The American English is sometimes a little difficult to follow, but persist; it is appropriate given the characters and their times and society, and really cannot be dispensed with.
The Nickel Boys is as good a work of literature and social history as anything I've read from an American author. It must, surely, become a classic.
It is a story based on similar institutions that were led in 1960's and 1970's, and I do get that some horrible, horrible things were happening at that kind of 'schools at the time'. I really respect Mr. Whitehead to open the topic to the public and start a discussion about what was really happening in America in those years. But I do miss some feelings in this book. Because I'm an emotional reader and to love a book I have to love it's characters, have to feel their emotions and have to care for their actions. And I just didn't have any of it here. Maybe I am weird, maybe I am cold, I don't know. But for me, it felt more like I'm reading a history manual rather than a historical fiction novel.
The Nickel Boys is an emotive and thought provoking title. The novel is loosely based around a real life true case of systemic abuse at a borstal type facility in 1960s America. Whilst the novel deals with themes of physical/emotional/sexual abuse, it does so in a sensitive manner. Only using scenes of violence to portray the fear within the boys and the complete and utter control their abusers have over them.
The novel is set in 1960s America the fight for civil rights is a backstory within the boys lives. But unfortunately equal rights will not come quick enough for Elwood and Turner. The boys come from very differing backgrounds, although both have known the emotional pain of abandonment and loss. Despite their different out looks on life, they instantly bond at the Nickel Academy. Their friendship will be the only saving grace during their time of detainment.
How do you follow-up a title as powerful as The Underground Railroad? How do you ever emulate a title that has had such global appeal and massive success?
Colson Whitehead has picked a real life part of history and used it to display how institutional racism gives way to abuse and even murder.
Life at the Nickel Academy is one of brutalisation, humiliation and loss of power for the boys detained there. How anyone can ever conceive that this environment would enable young men to make the changes they need, one can never truly know.
What the boys need is love, acceptance and a chance to learn. But there is NONE of that at the Nickel Academy.
I haven’t included any quotes in this review, as the title is only 208 pages. I raced through them at breakneck speed. leaving no time for note taking. Colson Whitehead has an exceptional way with words and there were many opportunities to quote moving passages.
The Nickel Boys is a hard-hitting title which is perfect for book groups, debate and discussion. I have a feeling it will stay with readers for a long time after the closing pages are finally turned!
Literary food for the soul, heart and the brain. 4.5*
Having said that, I found the main character very real; hard to say too much about the plot without revealing the late-on twist, which together with almost everyone else, I didn’t spot. I found it moving and shocking.
Based on the two Pulitzer winners so far, I’ll read Colson Whitehead’ s next book like a shot. He’s getting up there with the American greats.