The Nickel Boys: The Devastating History of a Corrupt Reform School

2Review: The Nickel Boys

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by Colson Whitehead
Doubleday Books
Release Date: July 16, 2019

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From the author of the 2017 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (The Underground Railroad), is another exceptional dramatization of history. Colson Whitehead transports readers to a tyrannical reform school during the Jim Crow era. 

The story follows Elwood Curtis, a young man with a bright future; he does well in school, works to save money for college, and respects authority. Amidst the height of the civil rights movement, Elwood deifies Martin Luther King, Jr. and cherishes his activism. Even with a prosperous future ahead of him, it is the early 1960’s and Elwood is a black boy living in the South. Wrong place, wrong time… Sentenced to The Nickel Academy.

“The law was one thing—you can march and wave signs around and change a law if you convinced enough white people. . . . You can change the law but you can’t change people and how they treat each other. Nickel was racist as hell—half the people who worked here probably dressed up like the Klan on weekends—but the way Turner saw it, wickedness went deeper than skin color” (105).

While Elwood and his schoolmates are fictional characters, the horrendous physical and psychological abuse they experience is very real. The Nickel Boys is based on real events that occurred at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys (a/k/a Florida School for Boys) in Marianna, Florida, which operated from 1900-2011 and devastatingly affected the lives of thousands of boys. 

The Nickel Boys is a powerful read—guaranteed to be popping up in book clubs across the country. Well-written with harrowing storytelling, it is one of those books that will stick with you, running through your mind like wildfire, long after finishing. Whether or not you read this book, I encourage you to check out the links below to learn more about the horrific injustice that occurred for over a hundred years in Florida. 

Men’s Stories from Florida School for Boys

University of South Florida Report on the Investigation into the Deaths and Burials at the Former Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida

St. Petersburg Times – For Their Own Good

Tampa Bay Times – Ground Truth

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