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Author: Colson Whitehead

Paperback: 210

Publisher: Doubleday

Copyright: 2019

Language: English

The Nickel Boys

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 Bio

Colson Whitehead is the author of the novels Zone One; Sag Harbor; The Intuitionist, a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway award; John Henry Days, which won the Young Lions Fiction Award, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; and Apex Hides the Hurt, winner of the PEN Oakland Award. 

He has also written a book of essays about his home town, The Colossus of New York, and a non-fiction account of the 2011 World Series of Poker called The Noble Hustle. 

A recipient of a Whiting Writers' Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a MacArthur Fellowship, he lives in New York City.



Colson Whitehead's 'The Nickel Boys' wins Pulitzer Prize 

the-nickel-boysThis combination photo shows the cover of "The Nickel Boys," left, and a portrait of author Colson Whitehead. Whitehead won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his work on Monday, May 4, 2020. (Doubleday, left, and Madeline Whitehead/Doubleday via AP)

By HILLEL ITALIE AP National Writer

NEW YORK (AP) — Colson Whitehead became the rare author to receive Pulitzers for consecutive books when his novel about a brutal Florida reform school during the Jim Crow era, "The Nickel Boys," was awarded the fiction prize Monday. Three years ago, he won for his Civil War era novel "The Underground Railroad."

Pulitzer judges praised "The Nickel Boys" as "a spare and devastating exploration of abuse" that is "ultimately a powerful tale of human perseverance, dignity and redemption." Whitehead, 50, is known for his experimental narratives and immersion in American history and folklore. His previous works include "John Henry Days" and "The Intuitionist."

In a statement issued through his publisher, Doubleday, Whitehead said the news of his winning Monday was "pretty nuts!"

"Obviously I'm very honored and I hope that it raises awareness of the real-life model for the novel — The Dozier School for Boys — so that the victims and their stories are not forgotten," he said.

William Faulkner and John Updike are among the previous fiction writers to win more than one Pulitzer, but not for books that immediately followed the other.

Several of the works honored in the arts Monday explored race in American culture, including the music winner, Anthony Davis' opera "The Central Park Five." It tells of the wrongful conviction of five black and Latino teenagers for the 1989 assault on a white female jogger in Central Park. Five adult singers depicted the group as boys and men in Davis' opera.

The Pulitzer board called the opera "a courageous operatic work, marked by powerful vocal writing and sensitive orchestration, that skillfully transforms a notorious example of contemporary injustice into something empathetic and hopeful."

Michael R. Jackson's "A Strange Loop," a musical about a man trying to write a musical, won for drama. Jackson, who wrote the music, story and lyrics, centers on an overweight, overwhelmed "ball of black confusion" trying to navigate multiple worlds — white, black and gay — as well as his family's religion.

"No one cares about a writer who is struggling to write," sings the anxiety-ridden lead character, Usher.

The Pulitzer board called it a "meditation on universal human fears and insecurities." The play was seen off-Broadway in 2019 at Playwrights Horizons. Musicals rarely claim the Pulitzer, with only "Next to Normal" and "Hamilton" winning since 2010.

"Thank you to everyone who has supported me on my journey to such an incredible honor. I'm sure I'll have more to say once I've caught my breath and looked at all these text messages and emails but for now, THANK YOU," Jackson tweeted.

Caleb McDaniel won in history for "Sweet Taste of Liberty," in which she chronicles how a former enslaved person, Henrietta Wood, successfully sued the Kentucky law enforcement officer who contrived to sell her back into bondage after she had obtained her freedom.

Benjamin Moser's "Sontag: Her Life and Work," about the late Susan Sontag, won for biography. There were two winners in general nonfiction: Greg Grandin's "The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America" and Ann Boyer's' "The Undying: Pain, vulnerability, mortality, medicine, art, time, dreams, data, exhaustion, cancer, and care."

In poetry, the winner was Jericho Brown's "The Tradition," a meditation on life during a time of mass shootings and police violence. Judges called it "A collection of masterful lyrics that combine delicacy with historical urgency in their loving evocation of bodies vulnerable to hostility and violence."

The initial Pulitzer ceremony, which had been scheduled for April 20, was pushed to give Pulitzer Board members more time to evaluate the finalists because of the pandemic.


AP Music Writer MesfinFekadu and Entertainment Writer Mark Kennedy contributed to this report.


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