The Nickel Boys

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The Nickel Boys
The Nickel Boys (Colson Whitehead).png
First edition cover
AuthorColson Whitehead
Audio read byJD Jackson[1]
Colson Whitehead
Cover artistNeil Libbert (photograph)[2]
Oliver Munday (design)
CountryUnited States
Set inFlorida and New York City[3]
Publication date
July 16, 2019
Media typePrint (Hardcover)
LC ClassPS3573.H4768 N53 2019

The Nickel Boys is a 2019 novel by American novelist Colson Whitehead. It is based on the real story of the Dozier School, a reform school in Florida that operated for 111 years and had its history exposed by a university investigation. It was named one of TIME's best books of the decade.[4] It is the follow-up to Whitehead's 2016 novel The Underground Railroad, which won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

The Nickel Boys won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.[5] Judges of the prize called the novel "a spare and devastating exploration of abuse at a reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida that is ultimately a powerful tale of human perseverance, dignity and redemption."[6] It is Whitehead's second win, making him the fourth writer in history to have won the prize for fiction twice.[7]


The narrative alternates between the 2010s and the 1960s. In the present, Elwood Curtis is an African-American business owner in New York City. As an investigation into the defunct Nickel Academy begins to expose the school's hidden history of atrocities, including many secretly buried bodies on the premises, many men who were incarcerated at Nickel Academy as boys are coming forward to share their experiences of abuse. Curtis is forced to confront the lasting effects of his experiences there.

In 1960s Tallahassee, Elwood Curtis is a studious African-American high school student with an idealistic sense of justice inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. and Civil Rights marches. He is selected to attend university classes due to his intelligence. However, on the first day of classes he hitchhikes with an African-American man; when they are pulled over and it is discovered that the vehicle was stolen, Elwood is convicted as a delinquent and sent to Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory in Eleanor, Florida. Boys at Nickel Academy receive poor education, are made to perform hard labor, and frequently receive brutal corporal punishment. The staff also overlook and cover up sexual abuse and trips "out back" for punishment, from which some boys never return. The students are segregated by race, with Black boys facing worse treatment. Elwood befriends fellow student Turner, who has a more cynical view of the world and Nickel's administration. Elwood attempts to serve his time without incident, but is seriously beaten on two occasions: once for intervening to help a boy being attacked by sexual assaulters, and once after writing a letter to government authorities detailing the academy's poor conditions, corruption, and abuse. After Turner overhears of a plan to have Elwood killed by the administration, the two attempt an escape. Elwood is shot dead while Turner escapes; it is revealed that Turner falsely adopted Elwood's name and attempted to live up to his ideals when he was free.

In the 2010s, with an investigation into Nickel Academy ongoing, "Elwood Curtis" reveals his history and real name, Jack Turner, to his wife, then flies to Tallahassee to give testimony to his friend's fate.


Whitehead has described the characters as "two different parts of my personality", with Elwood Curtis being "the optimistic or hopeful part of me that believes we can make the world a better place if we keep working at it", and Jack Turner, "the cynical side that says no—this country is founded on genocide, murder, and slavery and it will always be that way."[8]

Development and writing[edit]

After dealing with slavery in his Pulitzer-prize winning novel, The Underground Railroad, Whitehead did not want to write "another heavy book." However, he felt the election of Donald Trump compelled him to do so.[9] Whitehead deliberately narrowed the scope of the book and grounded it for the sake of realism, choosing not to include the speculative or fantastic elements of his other novels Zone One or The Underground Railroad.[9]

The Nickel Boys is set at a fictionalized version of the Dozier School for Boys, dubbed Nickel Academy.[10] Whitehead first heard of the real life Dozier School on Twitter in 2014.[9] The school opened in 1900 and closed in 2011. The state of Florida ran Dozier, in Marianna, as a reform school.[11] After decades of allegations against the school for allowing the beatings, rapes, torture, and even murder of students by guards and employees, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement began an investigation of the claims in 2010, followed by additional investigations by the United States Department of Justice in 2011, and an ongoing forensic investigation by the University of South Florida which began in 2012. The Department of Justice investigation revealed “systemic, egregious, and dangerous practices exacerbated by a lack of accountability and controls.”[12] The University of South Florida investigation discovered some 55 graves on school grounds by December 2012, and has continued to identify potential grave sites as recently as March 2019.[13]


On the review aggregator website Book Marks, which assigns individual ratings to book reviews from mainstream literary critics, the novel received a cumulative "Rave" rating based on 53 reviews: 41 "Rave" reviews, 10 "Positive" reviews, 1 "Mixed" review, and 1 "Pan" review.[14]

Parul Sehgal, writing in The New York Times, said "Whitehead has written novels of horror and apocalypse; nothing touches the grimness of the real stories he conveys here."[15] The Washington Post critic Ron Charles wrote, "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."[16]

NPR's Maureen Corrigan said "It's a masterpiece squared, rooted in history and American mythology and, yet, painfully topical in its visions of justice and mercy erratically denied."[17]

The New Republic wrote, "The Nickel Boys is fiction, but it burns with outrageous truth."[18] Meanwhile, The Guardian wrote, "[Whitehead] demonstrates to superb effect how racism in America has long operated as a codified and sanctioned activity intended to enrich one group at the expense of another."[19]

Awards and recognition[edit]


  1. ^ "The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead". Penguin Random House Audio.
  2. ^ "Brilliant Book Covers: The Best Covers of July 2019". Bookish.
  3. ^ Wagner, Erica (July 26, 2019). "The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead — racism in America". Financial Times. Retrieved September 25, 2019.
  4. ^ "The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead: 9780385537070 | Books". Retrieved February 10, 2020.
  5. ^ Lee, Benjamin (May 4, 2020). "Colson Whitehead and This American Life among Pulitzer 2020 winners". The Guardian. Retrieved May 4, 2020.
  6. ^ Maher, John (May 4, 2020). "Moser, Whitehead, McDaniel, Grandin, Boyer, Brown Win 2020 Pulitzers". Publishers Weekly. Retrieved May 4, 2020.
  7. ^ Tucker, Emma (May 4, 2020). "Colson Whitehead Wins Second Pulitzer Prize for Fiction". The Daily Beast. Retrieved May 4, 2020.
  8. ^ Israel, Yahdon (July 16, 2019). ""The Outrage Was So Large and So Secret": Colson Whitehead Talks Hope, Despair, and Fighting the Power in The Nickel Boys". Vanity Fair. Retrieved March 4, 2020.
  9. ^ a b c Israel, Yahdon (July 16, 2019). ""The Outrage Was So Large and So Secret": Colson Whitehead Talks Hope, Despair, and Fighting the Power in The Nickel Boys". Vanity Fair. Retrieved July 18, 2019.
  10. ^ Grady, Constance (July 18, 2019). "Colson Whitehead's spare, riveting, horrifying Nickel Boys". Vox. Retrieved July 26, 2019.
  11. ^ Allen, Greg (October 15, 2012). "Florida's Dozier School For Boys: A True Horror Story". NPR. Retrieved July 18, 2019.
  12. ^ United States Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division. Investigation of the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys and the Jackson Juvenile Offender Center, Marianna, Florida. 1 December 2011, accessed 15 June 2012.
  13. ^ Montgomery, Ben (April 11, 2019). "More 'possible graves' found at Dozier School for Boys". Tampa Bay Times.
  14. ^ "Book Marks reviews of The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead". Book Marks. Literary Hub. Retrieved May 7, 2020.
  15. ^ Sehgal, Parul (July 11, 2019). "In 'The Nickel Boys,' Colson Whitehead Continues to Make a Classic American Genre His Own". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved August 8, 2019.
  16. ^ Charles, Ron. "In Colson Whitehead's 'The Nickel Boys,' an idealistic black teen learns a harsh reality". The Washington Post. Retrieved August 8, 2019.
  17. ^ "Rooted In History, 'The Nickel Boys' Is A Great American Novel". Retrieved August 8, 2019. - Alternate link at Houston Public Media
  18. ^ Livingstone, Josephine (July 30, 2019). "Colson Whitehead, American Escape Artist". The New Republic. ISSN 0028-6583. Retrieved August 8, 2019.
  19. ^ Forna, Aminatta (July 26, 2019). "The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead review – essential follow-up to The Underground Railroad". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved August 8, 2019.
  20. ^ "The 2020 Pulitzer Prize Winner in Fiction". The Pulitzer Prizes.
  21. ^ "Colson Whitehead Novel Wins $50,000 Kirkus Prize". US News and World Report. Associated Press. October 24, 2019. Retrieved March 4, 2002.
  22. ^ "2020 Youth Media Award Winners". American Libraries Magazine. Retrieved January 27, 2020.
  23. ^ "2019 Winners", National Book Awards, National Book Foundation.
  24. ^ Kellogg, Carolyn (January 11, 2020). "Announcing the finalists for the 2019 NBCC Awards". National Book Critics Circle.
  25. ^ "Longlists for the Orwell Prize 2018 revealed". The Orwell Foundation. April 9, 2018.
  26. ^ "Clanchy, Whitehead win 2020 Orwell Prize". Books+Publishing. July 10, 2020. Retrieved July 15, 2020.
  27. ^ "2020 Audie Awards".