The Nickel Boys

Colson Whitehead


The discovery of the bodies was an expensive complication for the real estate company awaiting the all clear from the environmental study, and for the state’s attorney, which had recently closed an investigation into the abuse stories. Now they had to start a new inquiry, establish the identities of the deceased and the manner of death, and there was no telling when the whole damned place could be razed, cleared, and neatly erased from history, which everyone agreed was long overdue.

                          from The Nickel Boys


Brotherhood of Broken Boys

Even in death the boys were trouble.

Good stories reflect the quandaries of their times. The best stories reflect the quandaries of all times, those issues that remain basic to our evolving humanity. It’s why we still read Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex or Shakespeare’s King Lear. They speak as much to our time as they once did to their own.

Colson Whitehead has recently won a second Pulitzer prize, placing him in a rather select company of authors. His new novel, The Nickel Boys, is set during the early Civil Rights years. Elwood Curtis is an African American youth inspired by the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to "be somebody." Raised by his grandmother, he excels at school and is on his way to college when he is mistakenly involved in a crime and then sentenced to the Nickel Academy, a reformatory for youthful offenders, but also housing boys who were orphans or abandoned and who the state had nowhere else to place. They refer to themselves as the Nickel boys “because their lives weren’t worth five cents.”

Based on the scandalous Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Florida, Nickel Academy’s staff ranges from the apathetic to the downright sadistic; corruption is standard, and the boys are abused emotionally, physically, and sexually, becoming part of “the infinite brotherhood of broken boys."

At Nickel, Elwood's life changes abruptly and irrevocably. Amid this hell, he’s befriended by Turner, who, unlike Elwood, has no illusions, no dreams, nor any interest in Dr. King’s high ideals. Turner knows how the world works, especially for black boys, and he becomes Elwood’s mentor on how to survive in the real world.

This gripping story raises enduring questions—about race, incarceration, reform and punishment, the value we place on youth such as Elwood and Turner, and about the kind of society that tolerates “reformatories” like the Dozier School for Boys.

In a foreword, Whitehead discusses the soul-source of his tale: “How to reconcile the racial progress we’ve made since my grandparents’ generation with our current regression into bitterness, discord, and rage? The optimist in me has to believe in a better future for my children, but the pessimist maintains that we have a long and troublesome path ahead, as we always have. In the story of Elwood and Turner, my two Nickel Boys, I tried to find a method to dramatize my existential quandary.”

It is our nation’s existential quandary as well. At the end, Whitehead offers a surprising twist that leaves the reader with a sense of profound loss—what we as a society have lost. The Nickel Boys could have been worth much more than five cents.



This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (July 15, 2020.) Reprinted with permission.