What are the themes in The Nickel Boys?

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The Nickel Boys is a 2019 novel by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead. The novel is largely set in a brutal Florida reform school, and there are several major themes that he deals with in the book. As in his previous novel, The Underground Railroad, race and racism are at the forefront of the story. Much of the story is set during the Civil Rights era and is about the harsh, sometimes lethal, inequities of the period. The protagonist, Elwood Curtis, is thrown into a reform school after a simple mistake he makes. He is hard working, responsible, and intelligent, but all of this is meaningless when he is a black man in the wrong place. So the book is largely about the racism of the time and how pervasive and destructive it could be.

Another major theme is education or, rather, mis-education. Elwood is originally bound for college and has won a college, but his future vanishes after he is arrested, and any hopes for learning are dashed when he starts at Nickel Academy, where education is hardly a priority. No one at the academy really seems to care about educating (or reforming) the boys; it's a hellish environment with frequent punishments. Whitehead seems to be making a point about just how damaging it was that education was denied to so many black students.

A final theme is that of buried history or what we as a nation choose to forget or overlook about our past, especially when it relates to racism.

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