The Nickel Boys
Dramatised reading of The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead, performed by Kwaku Fortune.
ILFDublin X 2021 DUBLIN Literary Award Shortlist Podcast Ep 4: Writer, songwriter, poet and vocalist, Jess Kav in conversation with Jessica Traynor. Exclusive limited podcast series featuring the 2021 DUBLIN Literary Award Shortlisted authors and translators.
Comment from the Judges
Colson Whitehead’s emerged as a leading chronicler of African-American experience with The Underground Railroad in 2016. Where The Underground Railroad was expansive in its imagination, The Nickel Boys returns to the traumas of African-American history with a very different literary style. Set in a juvenile institution in Florida – the ‘Nickel Academy’ – in 1960s, Whitehead here writes with a pared-down narrative and prose style, tracing the scars of the past in the lives of the present. The writing is spare, clean, and direct; and the result is a novel that not only casts light on a dark moment of African-American history, but also speaks to stories of institutional abuse everywhere.
About the Novel
Author of 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 1960s Florida. Elwood Curtis has taken the words of Dr Martin Luther King to heart: he is as good as anyone. Abandoned by his parents, brought up by his loving, strict and clear-sighted grandmother, Elwood is about to enrol in the local black college. But given the time and the place, one innocent mistake is enough to destroy his future, and so Elwood arrives at The Nickel Academy, which claims to provide ‘physical, intellectual and moral training’ which will equip its inmates to become ‘honorable and honest men’. In reality, the Nickel Academy is a chamber of horrors, where physical, emotional and sexual abuse is rife, where corrupt officials and tradesmen do a brisk trade in supplies intended for the school, and where any boy who resists is likely to disappear ‘out back’. Stunned to find himself in this vicious environment, Elwood tries to hold on to Dr King’s ringing assertion, ‘Throw us in jail, and we will still love you.’ But Elwood’s fellow inmate and new friend Turner thinks Elwood is naive and worse; the world is crooked, and the only way to survive is to emulate the cruelty and cynicism of their oppressors .The tension between Elwood’s idealism and Turner’s skepticism leads to a decision which will have decades-long repercussions. Based on the history of a real reform school in Florida that operated for one hundred and eleven years and warped and destroyed the lives of thousands of children, The Nickel Boys is a devastating, driven narrative by a great American novelist whose work is essential to understanding the current reality of the United States.
About the Author
Colson Whitehead is the Sunday Times bestselling author of The Underground Railroad, The Noble Hustle, Zone One, Sag Harbor, The Intuitionist, John Henry Days, Apex Hides the Hurt, and one collection of essays, The Colossus of New York. A Pulitzer Prize winner and a recipient of MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships, he lives in New York City.
This novel tells the story of two boys in a reform school in Florida in the 1960s. Their story helps the reader to understand the current tensions in the United States. Bibliotheek Gent, Belgium
There’s no denying the power of this novel, a fictional account of the racist and sadistic practices of a notorious reform school in America’s deep south. With his use of multiple characters and flashbacks, Colson Whitehead captures both the shocking events and the lingering aftermath for those who survived. A comprehensive look at a little-known history. Cleveland Public Library, USA
The Nickel Boys is a compelling backdrop to the destructive power and persistence of racism in the United States. It is often gut-wrenching to read and heartbreaking to contemplate. But it is also inspiring–a testament to human endurance, friendship and resilience. New Hampshire State Library, USA
For library members in Ireland, this novel is available as an eAudio book on BorrowBox.