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Title:
The Nickel boys
ISBN:
9781984891396

9781984891372
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Unabridged.
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6 audio discs (approximately 7 hr.) : CD audio, digital ; 4 3/4 in.
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Compact discs.
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Summary:
As the Civil Rights movement begins to reach the black enclave of Frenchtown in segregated Tallahassee, Elwood Curtis takes the words of Dr. Martin Luther King to heart: He is "as good as anyone." Abandoned by his parents, but kept on the straight and narrow by his grandmother, Elwood is about to enroll in the local black college. But for a black boy in the Jim Crow South of the early 1960s, one innocent mistake is enough to destroy the future. Elwood is sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy, whose mission statement says it provides "physical, intellectual and moral training" so the delinquent boys in their charge can become "honorable and honest men." In reality, the Nickel Academy is a grotesque chamber of horrors where the sadistic staff beats and sexually abuses the students, corrupt officials and locals steal food and supplies, and any boy who resists is likely to disappear "out back." Stunned to find himself in such a vicious environment, Elwood tries to hold onto Dr. King's ringing assertion "Throw us in jail and we will still love you." His friend Turner thinks Elwood is worse than naive, that the world is crooked, and that the only way to survive is to scheme and avoid trouble. The tension between Elwood's ideals and Turner's skepticism leads to a decision whose repercussions will echo down the decades. Formed in the crucible of the evils Jim Crow wrought, the boys' fates will be determined by what they endured at the Nickel Academy.
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Summary

Summary

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

LONGLISTED FOR THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD

In this bravura follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize, and National Book Award-winning #1 New York Times bestseller 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 Jim Crow-era Florida.

As the Civil Rights movement begins to reach the black enclave of Frenchtown in segregated Tallahassee, Elwood Curtis takes the words of Dr. Martin Luther King to heart: He is "as good as anyone." Abandoned by his parents, but kept on the straight and narrow by his grandmother, Elwood is about to enroll in the local black college. But for a black boy in the Jim Crow South of the early 1960s, one innocent mistake is enough to destroy the future. Elwood is sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy, whose mission statement says it provides "physical, intellectual and moral training" so the delinquent boys in their charge can become "honorable and honest men."
In reality, the Nickel Academy is a grotesque chamber of horrors where the sadistic staff beats and sexually abuses the students, corrupt officials and locals steal food and supplies, and any boy who resists is likely to disappear "out back." Stunned to find himself in such a vicious environment, Elwood tries to hold onto Dr. King's ringing assertion "Throw us in jail and we will still love you." His friend Turner thinks Elwood is worse than naive, that the world is crooked, and that the only way to survive is to scheme and avoid trouble.
The tension between Elwood's ideals and Turner's skepticism leads to a decision whose repercussions will echo down the decades. Formed in the crucible of the evils Jim Crow wrought, the boys' fates will be determined by what they endured at the Nickel Academy.
Based on the real story of a reform school in Florida that operated for one hundred and eleven years and warped the lives of thousands of children, The Nickel Boys is a devastating, driven narrative that showcases a great American novelist writing at the height of his powers.


Author Notes

Colson Whitehead was born on November 6, 1969. He graduated from Harvard College and worked at the Village Voice writing reviews of television, books, and music.

His first novel, The Intuitionist, won the Quality Paperback Book Club's New Voices Award. His other books include The Colossus of New York, Sag Harbor, and Zone One. He won the Young Lions Fiction Award and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for John Henry Days, the PEN/Oakland Award for Apex Hides the Hurt, and the National Book Award for fiction and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for The Underground Railroad.

His reviews, essays, and fiction have appeared in numerous publications including the New York Times, The New Yorker, New York Magazine, Harper's and Granta. He has received a MacArthur Fellowship, a Whiting Writers Award, and a fellowship at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers.

(Bowker Author Biography)


Reviews 3

Guardian Review

Based on a brutal Florida reform school, this tightly wrought novel demonstrates to superb effect how racism in America has long operated as a codified and sanctioned activity In the final pages of Colson Whitehead's forceful and tightly wrought novel, Millie, new partner to the main character, recalls: "It was hard to remember sometimes how bad it used to be - bending to a colored fountain when she visited her family in Virginia, the immense exertion white people put into grinding them down - and then it all returned in a rush, set off by tiny things, like standing on a corner trying to hail a cab ... [and] by the big things, a drive through a blighted neighborhood snuffed out by that same immense exertion, or another boy shot dead by a cop." When I first came to live in Virginia four years ago, friends made jokes, with raised eyebrows, about how we were moving "to the South". I didn't really worry, because to me Virginia didn't seem particularly southerly. Virginia wasn't Alabama, wasn't Florida - the setting for Whitehead's novel. Yet in Virginia, at the time of my birth, my parents (one white, one black) would have been forbidden to marry. Following Brown v Board of Education in 1954, Virginia successfully opposed desegregating schools for decades. A neighbour who lives in one of the older houses in the area told me that the deeds for his house contain a clause forbidding its sale to non-whites. "Unenforceable today," he half smiled. His parents are immigrants from Pakistan. On trips further south, to Mississippi, Tennessee and Florida itself, I started to ask people in their 70s and older - not black people, but white people - what it was like to grow up in the era of segregation. I was curious to know how it felt to be able to order a black person to the back of the bus, have black people step aside for you in the street, to always sit in the best seats in the cinema. Those privileges had been lost in living memory, and yet much of the US treats the issue of segregation as if it belongs to ancient history. I have had these conversations with white people in South Africa, and yet every single American I talked to claimed not to be able to remember. One man told me that the town where he had been raised had been a "progressive" sort of place, where these things didn't happen. Shortly after our conversation the New York Times ran a spread about a lynching that had taken place there in 1935, before my interlocutor's birth, but at a time when his parents certainly lived there. The victim's name was Elwood Higginbotham. Elwood is also the name of one of the protagonists of The Nickel Boys . Elwood Curtis grows up at the time of Brown v Board of Education, listening to the speeches of Martin Luther King and imbibing every word. Elwood's grandmother Harriet, who is raising him, is less convinced; not of the need for civil rights, for she takes part in the bus boycott once she's assured herself that everyone else is doing the same, but about sticking your head above the parapet. Whitehead has a gift for summarising the essence of a person's nature in a few lines: "She kept a sugarcane machete under her pillow for intruders, and it was difficult for Elwood to think that the old woman was afraid of anything. But fear was her fuel." Elwood works hard and gets good grades, attracting the attention of a new teacher at his school, who is also a civil rights activist and gets him into free classes at a coloured college south of Tallahassee. Hitchhiking there, Elwood picks the wrong driver from whom to accept a ride: "When Rodney shook his hand, the rings on his fingers made Elwood wince." Rodney is a car thief and soon the pair are pulled over by police. And through this one small error of judgment, Elwood's life is changed when he is sent to a reform school called Nickel. There he is under the rule of superintendent Maynard Spencer, "who moved with a deliberate air, as if he rehearsed everything in front of a mirror ... Spencer was fastidious with his dark blue Nickel uniform; every crease in his clothes looked sharp enough to cut, as if he were a living blade." According to Whitehead's acknowledgments page, The Nickel Boys was inspired by the true story of the Arthur G Dozier School for Boys in the small panhandle town of Marianna in Florida. After numerous reports and finally an investigation, including the excavation of a number of unmarked graves by a team of archaeology students in 2012, NPR reported that some 81 boys had died there. Dozier only closed its doors in 2011, and many of its former inmates are still only in their 60s. Although Whitehead is clear that Nickel, the characters and their stories are fiction, he has been true to many of the details of the Dozier regime: the brutal night-time beatings, in which boys were snatched from their beds and taken to a place called the White House, and the killings. And yet for all the horror, the descriptions of violence are remarkably understated. For the most part this restraint adds to the book's impact, underlining the detachment with which the violence was enacted. There are other times, though, when Whitehead slides over key moments that would seem to beg for more detail: Elwood's conviction and sentencing, for example (we skip from the moment of his arrest to his incarceration), and another scene which I can't describe without spoiling the book, but which also left this reader wondering exactly how a seemingly inescapable moment unfolded. Instead of the violence, Whitehead homes in on the way in which every action fits into a fully orchestrated whole, which is why I would wish everyone, black or white, to read this novel. He 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. Racism and white supremacy are the ideologies underpinning the economic exploitation of black people, once given legal force by Jim Crow laws. These laws put power into the hands of ordinary white people. A white person could have a black person arrested for "bumptious contact" - not giving way on the sidewalk, say. The system benefited ordinary white people, from the shopkeepers who resold the food supplies meant for the reform school boys, to the housewife who had her gazebo painted at no cost. Thus, ordinary white people were invested in sustaining the system, including what took place at schools like Nickel. For that was where black boys who did not submit early ended up. Elwood's best friend in Nickel is Turner, who seems to have learned the reality of survival faster than most. Turner was "simultaneously at home in whatever scene he found himself and also seemed like he shouldn't have been there; inside and above at the same time; a part and apart. Like a tree trunk that falls across a creek - it doesn't belong and then it's never not been there, generating its own ripples in the larger current." Turner is affable, artful, cunning and kind; a boy who might have enjoyed the freewheeling adventures of a Huck Finn, if only he hadn't been born black. Turner isn't interested in Dr King's notion of how the world should work; instead, he is clear-eyed about how it does work and how it might work for him. At Nickel boys are supposed to be able to advance their release date through good behaviour, but nobody really knows how the system of merits and demerits works. With Turner's help, Elwood figures out that all that really matters are the whims of the white person in charge. Nickel is a microcosm of a corrupt world, in which the rule of law is meaningless and the real laws are unwritten. Last month the Washington Post reported a supreme court ruling that Mississippi prosecutors engaged in a "relentless and determined effort" to exclude African Americans from a jury considering the case of another African American (whose first name this time was coincidentally Curtis), thus denying him a fair trial. So far Curtis Flowers has been tried six times, going back to the 1990s. "Their daddies taught them how to keep a slave in line, passed down this brutal heirloom," writes Whitehead. "They waited for wayward boys in need of an attitude adjustment. They wait still, as long as the sons - and the sons of those sons - remember." In the American south, for both black and white people, the memories and the wait go on.


New York Review of Books Review

THE NICKEL BOYS, by Colson Whitehead. (Doubleday, $24.95.) Whitehead, a Pulitzer winner for "The Underground Railroad," continues to explore America's racist legacy in this powerful novel about a serious student who dreams that college might lead him out of the Jim Crow South. Instead, he's wrongly arrested and sent to a brutal reform school modeled on a real institution. MY PARENTS: An Introduction/THIS DOES NOT BELONG TO YOU, by Aleksandar Hemon. (MCD/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $28.) In a two-part memoir, Hemon shows how Bosnia and its wartime strife have shaped a life of exile for his family in Canada. APPEASEMENT: Chamberlain, Hitler, Churchill, and the Road to War, by Tim Bouverie. (Tim Duggan, $30.) This book about Neville Chamberlain's appeasement policy in the 1930s is most valuable as an examination of the often catastrophic consequences of failing to stand up to threats to freedom, whether at home or abroad. THE CROWDED HOUR: Theodore Roosevelt, the Rough Riders, and the Dawn of the American Century, by Clay Risen. (Scribner, $30.) This fast-paced narrative traces the rise of Roosevelt into a national figure and something of a legend against the backdrop of the emergence of the United States as a world power. THE ICE AT THE END OF THE WORLD: An Epic Journey Into Greenland's Buried Past and Our Perilous Future, by Jon Gertner. (Random House, $28.) Gertner approaches Greenland via the explorers and scientists obsessed with it, then uses the country to illuminate the evidence for climate change. GRACE WILL LEAD US HOME: The Charleston Church Massacre and the Hard, Inspiring Journey to Forgiveness, by Jennifer Berry Hawes. (St. Martin's, $28.99.) This magisterial account of the 2015 hate crime and its aftermath, by a Pulitzer-winning local reporter, delivers a heart-rending portrait of life for the survivors and a powerful meditation on the meaning of mercy. MOSTLY DEAD THINGS, by Kristen Arnett. (Tin House, $25.) The "red mess" that Arnett's narrator finds in the family's taxidermy workshop early in this debut novel is not the inside of a deer - it's her dad, who has committed suicide. The book balances grief with humor and lush, visceral details. LANNY, by Max Porter. (Graywolf, $24.) In this rich, cacophonous novel of English village life - equal parts fairy tale, domestic drama and fable - a mischievous boy goes missing. NOUNS & VERBS: New and Selected Poems, by Campbell McGrath. (Ecco/HarperCollins, $24.99.) McGrath, who has spent decades exploring America and its appetites, is an especially exuberant poet; his work celebrates chain restaurants, rock music and the joyful raucous stupidity of pop culture. The full reviews of these and other recent books are on the web: nytimes.com/books


Library Journal Review

Elwood Curtis is a good kid. He works hard and is kind, even when his contemporaries make fun of him for it. Abandoned by his parents at a young age and raised by his grandmother, he is a quiet teen living in the segregated south, dreaming of going to college and participating heroically in Martin Luther King Jr's nonviolent protests. When Elwood hitchhikes to get to an early entrance college class, he has no idea that the car was stolen, the driver a criminal. Elwood is immediately thrown into the Nickel Academy, a reform school for boys. Subjected to brutal abuse, both mental and physical, the boys must do everything they can not to be "taken out back"; a place from which they may never return. The novel follows several boys as they try to survive in a literal Hell on Earth. Based on a real reform school that operated in Florida for over 100 years, this deeply harrowing novel is extremely timely. Whitehead adeptly weaves into and out of each boy's life at Nickel as well as Curtis's adulthood after his escape. The scars on Curtis's psyche are subtle but deep and recognizable. JD Jackson narrates with accomplished ease. VERDICT This novel will pull you in and keep you thinking long after you stop listening. Recommended to fans of A Lesson before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines.--Terry Ann Lawler, Burton Barr Lib., Phoenix


Excerpts

Excerpts

Prologue Even in death the boys were trouble. The secret graveyard lay on the north side of the Nickel campus, in a patchy acre of wild grass between the old work barn and the school dump. The field had been a grazing pasture when the school operated a dairy, selling milk to local customers--one of the state of Florida's schemes to relieve the taxpayer burden of the boys' upkeep. The developers of the office park had earmarked the field for a lunch plaza, with four water features and a concrete bandstand for the occasional event. 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. All the boys knew about that rotten spot. It took a student from the University of South Florida to bring it to the rest of the world, decades after the first boy was tied up in a potato sack and dumped there. When asked how she spotted the graves, Jody said, "The dirt looked wrong." The sunken earth, the scrabbly weeds. Jody and the rest of the archaeology students from the university had been excavating the school's official cemetery for months. The state couldn't dispose of the property until the remains were properly resettled, and the archaeology students needed field credits. With stakes and wire they divided the area into search grids, dug with hand shovels and heavy equipment. After sifting the soil, bones and belt buckles and soda bottles lay scattered on their trays in an inscrutable exhibit. The Nickel Boys called the official cemetery Boot Hill, from the Saturday matinees they had enjoyed before they were sent to the school and exiled from such pastimes. The name stuck, generations later, with the South Florida students who'd never seen a Western in their lives. Boot Hill was just over the big slope on the north campus. The white concrete X 's that marked the graves caught the sunlight on bright afternoons. Names were carved into two-thirds of the crosses; the rest were blank. Identification was dif-ficult, but competition between the young archaeologists made for constant progress. The school records, though incomplete and haphazard, narrowed down who WILLIE 1954 had been. The burned remains accounted for those who perished in the dormitory fire of 1921. DNA matches with surviving family members--the ones the university students were able to track down-- reconnected the dead to the living world that proceeded without them. Of the forty-three bodies, seven remained unnamed. The students piled the white concrete crosses in a mound next to the excavation site. When they returned to work one morning, someone had smashed them into chunks and dust. Boot Hill released its boys one by one. Jody was excited when she hosed down some artifacts from one of the trenches and came across her first remains. Professor Carmine told her that the little flute of bone in her hand most likely belonged to a raccoon or other small animal. The secret graveyard redeemed her. Jody found it while wandering the grounds in search of a cell signal. Her professor backed up her hunch, on account of the irregularities at the Boot Hill site: all those fractures and cratered skulls, the rib cages riddled with buckshot. If the remains from the official cemetery were suspicious, what had befallen those in the unmarked burial ground? Two days later cadaver-sniffing dogs and radar imaging confirmed matters. No white crosses, no names. Just bones waiting for someone to find them. "They called this a school," Professor Carmine said. You can hide a lot in an acre, in the dirt. One of the boys or one of their relatives tipped off the media. The students had a relationship with some of the boys at that point, after all the interviews. The boys reminded them of crotchety uncles and flinty characters from their old neighborhoods, men who might soften once you got to know them but never lost that hard center. The archaeology students told the boys about the second burial site, told the family members of the dead kids they'd dug up, and then a local Tallahassee station dispatched a reporter. Plenty of boys had talked of the secret graveyard before, but as it had ever been with Nickel, no one believed them until someone else said it. The national press picked up the story and people got their first real look at the reform school. Nickel had been closed for three years, which explained the savagery of the grounds and the standard teenage vandalism. Even the most innocent scene--a mess hall or the football field--came out sinister, no photographic trickery necessary. The footage was unsettling. Shadows crept and trembled at the corners and each stain or mark looked like dried blood. As if every image caught by the video rig emerged with its dark nature exposed, the Nickel you could see going in and then the Nickel you couldn't see coming out. If that happened to the harmless places, what do you think the haunted places looked like? Nickel Boys were cheaper than a dime-a-dance and you got more for your money, or so they used to say. In recent years, some of the former students organized support groups, reuniting over the internet and meeting in diners and McDonald's. Around someone's kitchen table after an hour's drive. Together they performed their own phantom archaeology, digging through decades and restoring to human eyes the shards and artifacts of those days. Each man with his own pieces. He used to say, I'll pay you a visit later. The wobbly stairs to the schoolhouse basement. The blood squished between my toes in my tennis shoes. Reassembling those fragments into confirmation of a shared darkness: If it is true for you, it is true for someone else, and you are no longer alone. Big John Hardy, a retired carpet salesman from Omaha, maintained a website for the Nickel Boys with the latest news. He kept the others apprised on the petition for another investigation and how the statement of apology from the government was coming along. A blinking digital widget kept track of the fund-raising for the proposed memorial. E-mail Big John the story of your Nickel days and he'd post it with your picture. Sharing a link with your family was a way of saying, This is where I was made. An explanation and an apology. The annual reunion, now in its fifth year, was strange and necessary. The boys were old men now, with wives and ex-wives and children they did or didn't talk to, with wary grandchildren who were brought around sometimes and those whom they were prevented from seeing. They had managed to scrape up a life after leaving Nickel or had never fit in at all with normal people. The last smokers of cigarette brands you never see, late to the self-help regimens, always on the verge of disappearing. Dead in prison, or decomposing in rooms they rented by the week, frozen to death in the woods after drinking turpentine. The men met in the conference room of the Eleanor Garden Inn to catch up before caravaning out to Nickel for the solemn tour. Some years you felt strong enough to head down that concrete walkway, knowing that it led to one of your bad places, and some years you didn't. Avoid a building or stare it in the face, depending on your reserves that morning. Big John posted a report after each reunion for those who couldn't make it. In New York City there lived a Nickel Boy who went by the name of Elwood Curtis. He'd do a web search on the old reform school now and then, see if there were any developments, but he stayed away from the reunions and didn't add his name to the lists, for many reasons. What was the point? Grown men. What, you take turns handing each other Kleenex? One of the others posted a story about the night he parked outside Spencer's house, watching the windows for hours, the silhouette figures inside, until he talked himself out of revenge. He'd made his own leather strap to use on the superintendent. Elwood didn't get it. Go all that way, might as well follow through. When they found the secret graveyard, he knew he'd have to return. The clutch of cedars over the TV reporter's shoulder brought back the heat on his skin, the screech of the dry flies. It wasn't far off at all. Never will be. Excerpted from The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.