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review 2020-04-16 16:27
The Nickel Boys
The Nickel Boys - Colson Whitehead

Honestly not much to say besides this book stayed heartbreaking from beginning to end. Whitehead does so much with the language while reading this book you may end up cringing at times. Seeing how boys who were unlucky enough to be sent to the Nickel Academy (white and black) were treated by supposed adults that were supposed to be helping them makes you a bit sick inside after a while. This book reminds me a bit of "Sleepers" though we don't see any justice (or vengeance done). For readers that don't know, Whitehead took inspiration from the Dozier School that was reported about in 2014. Here is a link for those who want to read more, https://www.npr.org/2012/10/15/162941770/floridas-dozier-school-for-boys-a-true-horror-story

 

"The Nickel Boys" follow Elwood Curtis as he grows up during the Civil Rights Movement. Elwood is always a bit different than others and is doing what he can to be a man like Dr. Martin Luther King preaches about. When he is arrested and sent to a juvenile reformatory called The Nickel Academy, Elwood sees a side of the world that he never knew existed. He tries to keep his faith about what is fair and not fair and to be the change that Dr. King talks about. We jump into the future at times (1980s and 2014) and we follow a grown man that was also sent to The Nickel Academy.

 

Elwood made me want to shake him at times. I wanted to tell him to keep his head down and not push for things because he was not in the place to push for me. He was being treated terribly and his dreams of college are derailed. Reading about his young life and how his grandmother raised him after his parents abandoned him made me sad. The other boys we follow in this one have bleak beginnings and endings too. Elwood's one friend in the place, Turner, is cynical because he sees the truth about things a lot sooner than Elwood. There friendship is one of the lightest parts of the novel. Turner is jaded and sometimes wants to hurt Elwood for his faith and beliefs, but he is also protective of him too.

 

The writing as I said at times is harsh. This book is a lot to read over one sitting. It's fairly short though (over 200 pages) and the flow at times does get a bit jumbled when Whitehead jumps to "present day". When I got to the ending, I did go back and re-read the "present day" sections again with new clarity. 

 

The setting of The Nickel Academy is the stuff of nightmares.


The ending doesn't leave much for hope, but you get why the character is doing what they are in the end. Even though decades have passed, The Nickel Academy is still haunting them. 

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review 2019-09-10 23:25
The Nickel Boys
The Nickel Boys - Colson Whitehead
I listened to this novel as I painted our fence in the backyard. This small, section of fence should have taken just a few hours but when I finally made my way back inside, I realized that my morning was gone and I was working into the afternoon. I know for a fact that I’d stopped a few times while painting, as I realized that I had become so involved in the story, that I couldn’t paint and listen at the same time. I guess I had done more reading than painting today but at least the fence was done.
 
I just couldn’t believe what I was hearing. This was a true story. These individuals were young teens, young men being treated brutally, while everyone turned their backs on them.
 
As these individuals told their stories, I kept reminding myself that this story had really occurred. This was supposed to be a reform school, a place where change occurs for the better. The boys were at Nickel Academy either because they were orphans or because of their behavior. They didn’t expect to be someone’s target, they didn’t deserve the harsh punishment and the brutality that they received. They most certainly didn’t deserve death.
 
As I listened, I wondered how much longer the people in charge could continue this practice and get-away with it? Wasn’t there any checks and balances along the way? I cringed to think that these individuals would take their authority further and push the envelope. It angered and frustrated me that some individuals feel they have the right to behave this way to anyone or anything.
 
I feel that it’s a powerful book, a book that allows their story to be told but now, I have more questions after reading this book, than I did when I first started. 4.5 stars

 

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review 2019-08-28 23:45
The unfair, brutal history of reform schools comes to life.
The Nickel Boys - Colson Whitehead

Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead, author; Bahni Turpin, narrator

Nickel Boys is based on a reform school, Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, which truly existed in Florida. So, although this is a novel, a work of fiction, the terribly brutal behavior was common practice, the racism and the inequity, and the cruelty was real, and it leaps off the page.

The novel covers about 6 decades in the life of one of the characters, Elwood Curtis, who in the book is black, but in real life, the book is based on a white boy named Jerry Cooper who was running away from home. He was sent to the reform school in 1961, when he was just 16, because although he did not know it, he had hitchhiked in a car that the AWOL driver had stolen. The author has given Elwood, the main character of the novel, his experiences. Elwood was supposed to be on his way to college when he made the mistake of hitchhiking. He was arrested when the police pulled over the car and discovered it was stolen. He was sent to reform school, although he had no knowledge of the theft or the driver.

The effect of societal changes, including the integration of schools, barely influenced Nickel Academy. What went on at that school, knowing now that it went on in reality, will shock most readers. It should encourage them to explore the true story behind this novel. It is hard to believe that such a place with such practices could have existed without the outside world knowing or objecting. It is hard to believe that a justice system could mete out such injustice, without objection, but what happened to Elwood was a symptom of society’s illness. In the book it is a gross miscarriage of justice, made more critical because it was the same in the world of non-fiction. It is a story that cries out to be told in any form. The violence, torture and murder was obviously real as is evidenced by the presence of the bones in the graves of the former “students” that were unearthed there.

While the book is occasionally disjointed with a time line and locale that becomes confused, and with a surprise ending that was unexpected, the overall message is so important, it screams for it to be revealed in the light of day. There are some, possibly still alive, that were complicit because they had to have had knowledge of the existence of such heinous activity. One can only wonder how the evil that drove these men who participated in the grotesque behavior went undiscovered.

Because the message is so important, the quality of the writing, which has been criticized by some, and the lack of enough editing which has also been a concern, pales in importance when compared to the message, rarely aired, about this corrupt and evil school, just one of many that once existed. The history of such places is a scar on the history of the states in which they operated and American society.

If just a portion of what is written on these pages is true, it would be a monumental blight on the history of civil rights.

 

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review 2019-08-23 08:09
Verbrechen, die nie gesühnt wurden
The Nickel Boys - Colson Whitehead

Tallahassee (Südflorida) Anfang der 1960er-Jahre: Der 16-jährige Elwood Curtis lebt bei seiner Großmutter in einem schwarzen Ghetto, nachdem seine Eltern abgehauen sind. Der farbige Jugendliche ist ein glühender Fan von Martin Luther King und träumt davon, aufs College zu gehen. Er legt viel Fleiß an den Tag, um dieses Ziel zu erreichen. Tatsächlich erhält er die Möglichkeit, seinen Traum zu verwirklichen. Doch dann kommt alles ganz anders. Wegen eines Missverständnisses, ausgelöst durch seine Hautfarbe, wird Elwood zum Opfer eines Justizirrtums und landet in der Besserungsanstalt „Nickel Academy“. Dort muss er Tag für Tag Willkür und unvorstellbare Brutalität über sich ergehen lassen.  

„Die Nickel Boys“ von Colson Whitehead ist ein Roman, der die Themen Rassismus und Gewalt in den Vordergrund stellt.

Meine Meinung:
Der Roman besteht aus drei Teilen und insgesamt 16 Kapiteln. Vorangestellt ist ein Prolog. Zudem gibt es einen Epilog. Erzählt wird vorwiegend, aber nicht nur aus der Sicht von Elwood. Immer wieder gibt es Zeitsprünge, die mir jedoch keine Probleme bereitet haben.

Der Schreibstil ist unaufgeregt, recht nüchtern und ein wenig distanziert, aber dennoch intensiv und einfühlsam. Allerdings wirkt die deutsche Übersetzung stellenweise holprig und hat leider einige idiomatische Schwächen. Der Einstieg in die Geschichte fiel mir dennoch leicht.

Mit Elwood steht ein junger Protagonist im Mittelpunkt, der mit seiner ehrlichen, vielleicht schon etwas naiven Art meine Sympathie gewinnen konnte. Seine Entwicklung wird authentisch und nachvollziehbar geschildert.

Obwohl die Handlung insgesamt recht spannungsarm ist und erst gegen Ende mit einer Wendung so richtig überrascht, kommt beim Lesen keine Langeweile auf. Das liegt nicht nur an der eher geringen Seitenzahl, sondern vor allem am Inhalt.

Die Themen im Roman haben es in sich und machen betroffen. Es geht um Rassismus, Hass und Diskriminierung, um Missbrauch, Unterdrückung, Willkür und andere Formen von Gewalt. Dadurch ist die Geschichte keine leichte Kost. Sie regt nachdrücklich zum Nachdenken an und wühlt auf. Zwar spielt der Roman in der Vergangenheit, doch lassen sich auch Bezüge zum Geschehen der heutigen Zeit erkennen, was der Lektüre Aktualität verleiht.

Gut gefallen hat mir, dass der Roman – trotz des fiktiven Charakters Elwood – auf wahren Begebenheiten beruht. Tatsächlich gab es in Florida eine solche Besserungsanstalt, allerdings mit dem Namen „Dozier School for Boys“. Das ist im Nachwort zu erfahren, das die fundierte Recherche des Autors belegt. Durch die literarische Verarbeitung wird die Aufmerksamkeit auf diese grauenvolle Episode der Vergangenheit gelenkt, was ich wichtig finde.

Das sehr reduziert gestaltete Cover passt gut zum Inhalt. Gut gefällt mir auch, dass man sich am prägnanten amerikanischen Originaltitel („The Nickel Boys“) orientiert hat.

Mein Fazit:
„Die Nickel Boys“ von Colson Whitehead ist ein aufrüttelnder, tiefgründiger Roman über ein dunkles Kapitel der amerikanischen Geschichte. Besonders aufgrund seiner Thematik kann ich das Buch empfehlen.

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review 2019-08-12 09:52
Inspiring, tough, appalling. A must read.
The Nickel Boys - Colson Whitehead

I thank NetGalley and Little, Brown Book Group UK for providing me an ARC copy of this book, which I freely chose to review.

In brief, this is an extraordinary book. Beautifully written, haunting, it vividly portrays and era and a place (the early 1960s in Florida), and illustrates the very best and the very worst of human beings and their behaviour. Although everybody should know about the true story this book is inspired by, my only hesitation in recommending this book to all is that it is a tough read, and one that could upset people who have experienced abuse or violence or prefer not to read graphic accounts of those topics. (It is not extreme, in any way, in its depiction of violence and abuse, and much is left to the imagination of the reader rather than being unnecessarily and openly graphic, but then, my level of tolerance is quite high, so it might not be an indication of other readers’ opinion. On the other hand, it is emotionally harrowing, as it should be).

I had not read any of Whitehead’s books before but had heard and read many comments about his recent success with The Underground Railroad, and was keen to see what he would write next. Although I can’t compare the two, based on how much I have enjoyed this story and the style of writing, I am eager to catch up on the author’s previous novels.

I went into this book not having read reviews or detailed comments about it, other than the short description on NetGalley, and I was quickly drawn into the story. After the brief prologue, that sets up the scene and introduces what will become the main setting (and a protagonist in its own right) of the story, The Nickel Academy (previously, The Florida Industrial School for Boys, created in 1899, a reform school in serious need of reforms), we get to meet the two protagonists, first Elwood Curtis, an upstanding boy, determined to make his grandmother proud, a firm believer in Martin Luther King’s philosophy and speeches, a hard student and worker, and later Jack Turner, a boy with a more difficult background whom we meet during his second stay at Nickel. The interaction between the boys, the differences between them, the unlikely friendship that develops, and the ways their lives influence each other, not always evident as we read it, form the backbone of this novel, whose action is set mostly in a momentous era, the 1960s, and with the background of the Civil Rights Movement at its heart. Elwood’s determination to follow King’s dictates is sorely put to the test at Nickel, but he does learn much about himself and about the world there, including some things that should never happen to anybody, no matter their age or colour. Turner, a survivor who has been exposed to a much harsher reality than Elwood from the beginning, learns a new set of values and much more.

As I mentioned above, the story, narrated in the third person but mostly from the point of view of the two main characters (the novel is divided into different parts, and it is clearly indicated which point of view we are sharing), is beautifully written. It lyrically captures the nuances of the period and the place, using a richly descriptive style of writing that makes us feel as if we were there, experiencing the oppressive heat, the excitement of being a young boy going in his first adventure, the thrill of joining a heartfelt protest, the fear of Nickel, the dashed hopes… And later, we also touch base with the main character’s life at different points after Nickel, including the present, when he hears about the unearthing of the story, and we realise that, for him, it’s never gone away; it’s never become the past. The author intersperses the words of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches, of James Baldwin’s stories, and, as he explains in the Acknowledgements’ section at the end, he also quotes from real life accounts from survivors of the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida, whose story inspired the setting and much of the story this book narrates. Although I didn’t know the story was based on a real place, I kept wondering about it as I read —it felt true, for sure—, and I was not surprised when my suspicions were unfortunately confirmed at the end. (The author provides plenty of links and information about the real story of Dozier and also includes a bibliography of the other sources he has used, which will prove invaluable to researchers and readers eager to find out more). The author’s use of quotes adds to the true feel of the novel while establishing a clear connection between this story and the troubled history of race (and to a slightly lesser extent class) relations in the USA. Although based on a real reform school, Nickel is a microcosm, a metaphor for the abuse and corruption that has marred not only the United States but many other countries, and a reminder that we must remain vigilant, as some things and behaviours refuse to remain buried and keep rearing their ugly heads in more ways than one. I, for one, will not hear talk about the White House and not think about quite a different place from now on.

The characters are compelling, easy to empathise with, and one can’t help but root for these young men who find themselves in impossible circumstances. Some are complicit in the abuse, some mere victims, but most are just trying to survive. As for the perpetrators… There’s no attempt at explaining why or how it happened. This is not their story. Their story has been the official History for far too long.

Apart from all I’ve said, there’s quite a twist towards the end of the story, which casts a new light on some of the events and on the relationship between the two boys, clarifying some questions that are left answered as the story progresses. This is not a mystery or a thriller as such, but the twist introduces an element of surprise that, at least for me, increased the power of the narrative and the overall effect of the story. The compelling plot of the novel is perfectly matched by the masterly way it is told.

I highlighted a lot of passages from the novel, but I thought I’d share the opening, and another paragraph from the preamble, to give you a taster. (As I mentioned, mine is an ARC copy, so there might be some changes to the final published version).

Even in death the boys were trouble. (A fantastic opening line that will become one of my favourites from now on).

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.

A great novel, inspiring, appalling, tough, lyrical, fitting homage to the victims of a corrupt, merciless, and racist institution, and an indictment of the society that allowed it to exist.  Highly recommended, with the only reservations mentioned above about the subject matter.

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