The Nickel Boys


Colson Whitehead

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The Nickel Boys Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Colson Whitehead's The Nickel Boys. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead was born and raised in Manhattan. He attended Trinity School and Harvard University, graduating in 1991. He then moved back to New York and began working as a reporter for The Village Voice while simultaneously working on his first novel, The Intuitionist, which was published in 1999. Whitehead has now published multiple novels, including The Underground Railroad, Zone One, and The Nickel Boys, among others. Although well-known as a humorist, Whitehead’s writing bridges several distinct literary genres, including science fiction. In addition to novels, he has published numerous essays and two nonfiction books. He has won many awards, including the National Book Award (for The Underground Railroad), a Whiting Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a MacArthur Fellowship. Whitehead currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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Historical Context of The Nickel Boys

In 1954 the Supreme Court declared in the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education that it was illegal to segregate public schools based on race. Ten years later, President Johnson made all institutional forms of racial segregation and discrimination illegal by signing the Civil Rights Act. However, schools like the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys—upon which Whitehead based Nickel Academy—remained segregated until 1968. The Nickel Boys draws from this history, as Whitehead takes inspiration from the group of former Dozier students that came forward in the early 2000s to share their stories of abuse. The group is now known as The White House Boys and includes hundreds of members. In 2009, the Dozier School failed to pass an inspection and was subsequently investigated by the Florida government. Two years later, the school closed because of the number of abuse allegations leveled against it. In the intervening years, an anthropological team studied the land and unearthed 55 graves, in addition to determining that there had been at least 100 deaths on the campus, though the state of Florida forbade the team from exhuming the bodies, thereby making it impossible to know how these students died. Part of this had to do with the fact that the government wanted to sell parts of the property, but a relative of one of the dead students eventually filed and won a lawsuit prohibiting the state from selling the grounds before exhuming the bodies. Consequently, the state of Florida allowed for further studies. Since then, multiple previously undiscovered graves have been found, while only 14 bodies have been identified. The investigation is ongoing.

Other Books Related to The Nickel Boys

Before writing The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead composed The Underground Railroad, his sixth novel. Like The Nickel Boys, The Underground Railroad deals with racism, rebellion, violence, and history, though the novel looks specifically at slavery, whereas The Nickel Boys concerns itself with the period of American history directly following the Jim Crow era. In this regard, it is also related to The New Jim Crow, a work of nonfiction by Michelle Alexander, since both books examine the ongoing racism and discrimination of the United States judicial system. In addition, The Nickel Boys follows in the tradition of novels like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Richard Wright’s Native Son, since both books trace a young black man’s coming-of-age story against the backdrop of American racism and bigotry in the 20th century.
Key Facts about The Nickel Boys
  • Full Title: The Nickel Boys
  • When Published: July 16, 2019
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Setting: The novel takes place at the fictional Nickel Academy in Eleanor, Florida.
  • Climax: As Elwood and Turner run toward freedom, Harper shoots and kills Elwood while Turner hops a fence and disappears into the woods.
  • Antagonist: Maynard Spencer
  • Point of View: Third-person omniscient

Extra Credit for The Nickel Boys

Pulitzer. In 2017, Colson Whitehead won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his sixth novel, The Underground Railroad.

Response to Politics. After writing The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead didn’t want to “deal with such depressing material,” but then felt “compelled” to write another novel about the United States’s troubled history in the wake of the 2016 election. This novel eventually became The Nickel Boys.