In the follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning #1 New York Times bestseller The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead has written a novel that highlights another strand of American history through the story of two boys sentenced to a hellish reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida. The Nickel Boys is the disturbing Pulitzer Prize Winner for 2020, based on the real story of a reform school that operated for 111 years and devastated the lives of thousands of children.

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. I’ve also written a book of essays about my 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, and I’ve not even mentioned The Underground Railroad.

Elwood Curtis is a black boy growing up in 1960s Tallahassee, unfairly sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy and he finds himself trapped in a grotesque chamber of horrors. With furthered awareness of the lack of freedoms through a Martin Luther King vinyl and that awareness of the freedom he should have comes a more oppressive living.

Elwood’s salvation is his friendship with fellow “delinquent” Turner, which deepens despite Turner’s conviction that Elwood is hopelessly and innocently naïve. He more than implies on several occasions that the world is corrupt, and that the only way to survive is to scheme but avoid trouble. As life at the Academy becomes ever more torturous, the tension between Elwood’s ideals and Turner’s scepticism leads to a decision that sits with difficulty with the reader. It’s truly horrific to read this in the full knowledge that this is based on real life accounts of children that suffered this torment.

With beautiful characterisation and well-crafted plot through detail and prose, Whitehead has once again pinpointed an embarrassment of history. There are several moments throughout that let it down slightly, in terms of writing, and lose interest, but for the most part, it’s a privilege to follow the character of Elwood and his insufferable journey.

The Nickel Boys is out now, published by Doubleday