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As idealistic achiever and fledgling civil rights activist Elwood Curtis hitchhikes to his first college class in the early 1960s, the car that picks him up turns out to be stolen, and in a moment all of his dreams for the future are in peril. He is sent to Nickel Academy, a well-known reform school.

It’s terrible enough that he is losing his chance to follow his dreams of education, but he soon finds out that the realities of being a person of color at the reform school are much worse. The young men there are brutally beaten and sexually abused, by the staff and by each other. Elwood struggles to understand the words of his hero, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “Throw us in jail, and we will still love you ... we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom.” Freedom seems like a lost cause, and it is impossible to conjure up anything resembling “love” for anyone related to Nickel.

As Elwood attempts to navigate the treacherous days at school, he finds a friend in a jaded teen named Turner. Turner has seen a lot of horrible things in his young life and has lost all faith in the idea of justice. He can only shake his head at Elwood’s foolish innocence.

Alternating passages narrate Elwood’s life as an adult, trying to come to terms with his history. He is still affected by the trauma inflicted on him as a youth.

Based on a real-life Florida reform school, the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, where 27 possible graves were just discovered in April of this year, Whitehead’s novel has the weight of history behind it. Beyond the reform school itself, The Nickel Boys outlines the many ways that Jim Crow laws made it almost impossible for African Americans to succeed.

The Nickel Boys includes savage behavior and a lot of profanity. However, the history behind it, Whitehead’s gripping prose, and a cast of memorable characters make this short novel a devastating but powerful read. (Doubleday)

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