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Book Review of Colson Whitehead's The Nickel Boys

I really enjoyed The Underground Railroad, but I think enjoyed The Nickel Boys even more.

My husband enjoys fiction with well-developed characters and a defined ‘plot’ line. The largely linear narrative of The¬†Nickel Boys, at least for the first two sections of the story with a definite progression of events and wonderful characterisation of the protagonist, Elwood Corey, meant that I didn’t hesitate to recommend¬†The Nickel Boys¬†to him. This isn’t something I’d do lightly. My husband reads more non-fiction than fiction so is very choosy about the fiction that he invests in.¬†The Nickel Boys¬†is worth the investment.

The Nickel Boys traces the story of young Elwood through his childhood into his teens, growing up in Talahassee. Although abandoned by his parents, he is loved by his grandmother, and, inspired by the speeches of Martin Luther King, is determined to improve his own life circumstances.

As Elwood leaves home for a college education he, through no fault of his own, finds himself wrongfully sent to a reform school. Once there Elwood suffers untold and unimaginable horrors, but is determined to not only escape the miseries he and the other boys endure daily, but¬† to continue to hold close the ideals and beliefs of Martin Luther King. During a spell in solitary confinement he struggles over King’s equation “Be assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer…” It is King’s beliefs and values that underpin the novel.

On the book jacket of The Nickel Boys Alex Preston, of the Observer states that The Nickel Boys “opens up thrilling new vistas for the form of the novel itself.” I began the review by suggesting that the book follows a traditional narrative structure. When reading the text Preston’s comment initially surprised me. Although the book is great, it wasn’t I felt ground breaking, stylistically. It was only when I had read to the very end that I realised what an absolute tour de force it is both in structure and style. The final chapters are stunning demonstrating tremendous story writing skill as the heart wrenching conclusion to events is revealed. As in The Underground Railroad Whitehead shows it is clearly not his purpose to spare the reader’s feelings..¬†

I think Colson Whitehead is the only author to win the Pulitzer Prizer twice. Both winning books - The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys - are fabulous.

Book Discussion Questions on Colson Whitehead's The Nickel Boys

Did you anticipate the twist at the end of the book? 

The injustices Elwood’s grandmother has faced throughout her life means that, whilst she acts very bravely, she actually lives in constant fear. How does this manifest itself in the way that she raises Elwood?¬†

Revisit the different sections of the story. Discuss how and when the narrative voice changes.

Appearance vs reality is a theme that dominates the story. Discuss when and how the theme is explored.

Why did Turner/Elwood refuse to be photographed promoting his business in front of his new offices on 125th Street?

Turner was reulctant to share Elwood’s written account of what really happened in the school, but ultimately did so. Why?

What messages of hope are there in the story The Nickel Boys?

Discuss the signficance of the final line of the¬†The Nickel Boys¬†“He was hungry and they served all day, and that was enough.”

In chapter twelve of The Nickel Boys the narrator states that there are four ways out of Nickel. Of the four tehcniques which would you choose?

The Nickel Boys illustrates the horrendous levels of¬† racial abuse that openly existed in America during the 1950s and onwards. Moving forward, how helpful was the text for you in understanding the current “Black Lives Matter’ movement?¬†


In The Nickel Boys the weak prey upon the helpless. The level of barbarity and pre-meditated cruelty of characters such as Spencer and Hardee is wicked. Are some people simply born evil or are the reasons behind their cruelty more complex? Is it possible to, if not pardon, at least explain the reasons for their barbaric behaviour? 

Did you find the ending of the book satisfactory? Why or why not? 

Who is the bravest charcter in The Nickel Boys? Discuss.

We learn that Elwood had been abandoned by his mother and father who left him and went to California when he was six. Elwood’s father had fought loyally for America but became embittered once he returned to civilian life where he lived in a town where black men in uniform were frequently lynched. Elwood’s mother was described by his grandmother (her own mother) as weak. How do you view Elwood’s parents?¬†

What lasting impression has reading The Nickel Boys had on you? 

Bookclub Questions on Colson Whitehead's The Nickel Boys (if you haven't read the book!)

Whilst The Nickel Boys is a work of fiction it is inspired by the real events that occurred in The Dozier School for Boys. Discuss whether you find fiction a useful means of understanding real life events. Do you have examples of other fiction books which have helped you understand real life injustices?

Discuss how you think you would respond if faced with utter adversity.

Discuss how you have been affected by the Black Lives Matter movement. How has fiction, for example¬†The Underground Railroad,¬†or¬†Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age¬†helped you understand racism from both a historical and current context?¬†

Elwood only owns one record which plays the sermons of Martin Luther King given at Zion Hill. What speeches have you heard that have inspired your life? Or, what music have you repeatedly played that has lasting significance for you? 

Personal Response to The Nickel Boys

When I read The Nickel Boys I hadn’t realised that it had won the Pulitzer Prize this year. I was suprised, especially as it is was only 2017 that Colson Whitehead took the same prize for The Underground Railroad. I was pleased though. I enjoyed it and thought it a thoroughly worthy winner.

I particularly enjoyed that The Nickel Boys was historical fiction, but set relatively recently. It raised that classic question about how we continue to be blind to current injustices. It is difficult to comprehend how the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida on which the fictional  Nickel  was  loosely based existed right up until 2011. A sobering thought. Having now read The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys I will certainly read more of Whitehead’s books. I will also be investigating the Pulitzer further; it is a prize I know little about and I’m curious what criteria the shortlisted titles must meet to be considered for it. 

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