Book: The Nickel Boys

Author: Colson Whitehead

Review by: Cedric L. Suzman, retired co-founder and director of programming, World Affairs Council of Atlanta

Cedric Suzman

The Nickel Boys is a lot more disturbing to read than Colson Whitehead’s earlier book, The Underground Railway [Read Belgian Consul General William De Baets’ 2018 Underground Railway review here]. It is a story of a boy caught up by accident in the brutal world of a juvenile reformatory for boys. He tries to play by the rules and do everything right in the belief that this will lead to his early release.

The unimaginable brutality of the place is loosely based on a now-closed school in Dozier, Fla., where as recently as 2014, archaeology students found the remains of bodies buried in a secret graveyard. These were students who had been tortured, raped and mutilated, then buried behind the Dozier School. The Nickel School in the book has its own graveyard “out back.”

In unadorned prose, Whitehead shines a light on the depths of human depravity and also on the long and still unfinished legacy of slavery and racial injustice on which the United States has been built.

It is a powerful story that could be seen to have a redemptive ending, depending on your own perspective. For those interested in a black perspective on slavery, it complements Ta-Nehisi Coates’ most recent The Water Dancer, which is his first book of fiction and well worth reading.

Read Dr. Suzman’s 2018 review: Coates on What It Really Means to Be Black in America

Editor’s note: This review is part of Global Atlanta’s annual project asking influential readers and community leaders to review the most impactful book they read during the course of the year. This endeavor has continued each year since 2010. Purchases through the Amazon affiliate links at top will provide a commission to Global Atlanta. All books were chosen and reviews written independently, with only mild editing from our staff.