The Nickel Boys – by Colson Whitehead – independent book review – Historical Fiction (U.S.)

I did not give this book four stars on Goodreads because I enjoyed it. In fact, it’s an excruciatingly difficult book to finish and definitely not for the fainthearted. Also, unusually powerful. And the winner of the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

The Nickel Boys is based on a true story, something you learn more about in the author’s afterword. The title refers to those youngsters who spent time at a Florida state reform school for boys. During the 1960s, both white and black boys are sent there, though they are housed and fed separately since this period coincides with the Jim Crow South.

Those who run the school make no substantial effort at either education or rehabilitation. Instead, the boys provide endless hours of free labor while facing continual bullying and punishment. It’s an institution where racism, sadism, sexual and physical abuse, and political corruption converge. The very reason why it’s such a difficult book to read. These are teenagers, after all.

The central character is the optimistic Elwood Curtis, unjustly sentenced to Nickel Academy and subjected to its brutality, whose only salvation comes from his deepening friendship with the skeptical Turner. How these two boys navigate a situation none of us would want to experience makes for a compelling and well-written story. But certainly NOT fun.

Colson Whitehead

More about the author, Colson Whitehead.

You may be interested in my review of another book by Colson Whitehead:

The Underground Railroad