Between the Lines Book Club: Nickel Boys Discussion Questions

between the lines book club logoThis month our book club pick is Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. We will discuss the book in person at Arden Dimick Library at 10:30AM on Saturday, Feb 22, 2020.

Here are some questions to consider while you read the book:

  1. How does Elwood keep his sense of humanity? How does Turner? Talk about the role the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr play in the book.
  2. How do the boys and other people around them help them be resilient where others are not?
  3. One school of literary thought believes that the injustices and tragedies done to others must be brought to light and that this promotes social justice. Other feel that it promotes a kind of “misery porn” in which certain types of characters are permanently locked in miserable stories. What did you think about the painful content of this book?
  4. Why does Turner take Elwood with him?
  5. Why does the author keep the identity of the person living out an adult life in New York City a secret for so much of the book?
  6. MLK Jr. said “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Does the author think that this is true? Do you? Talk about the impact of the last paragraph, as well as the closing of the school.

The following questions are from the publisher:

1. In the prologue, the narrator observes that after the truth about Nickel Academy comes out, “even the most innocent scene – a mess hall or the football field – came out sinister, no photographic trickery necessary.” Can you think of a time in your life when discovering the history of a place (a particular building, a statue, a historical landmark, etc.) dramatically changed your perception of it?
2. Elwood says that both he and Yolanda King “woke to the world,” or discovered racism, at six years old. How old were you when you became aware of racism and inequality? How do you think this experience is different for different people?
3. While in the infirmary, Elwood reads a pamphlet about Nickel that details the contributions the school has made to the community, including bricks from the brick-making machine “propping up buildings all over Jackson County.” What do you think of the ways that the wider community seemed to benefit from labor performed by Nickel students? Do you see any historical or modern-day parallels to this symbiotic relationship?
4. One student, Jaimie, is half-Mexican and constantly shuffled between the “white” and “colored” sections of Nickel Academy. Why do you think the author included a character with Jaimie’s ethnic identity in this story?
5. One of Elwood’s takeaways from Dr. King’s speeches is the importance of maintaining one’s dignity in the face of oppression. Is Elwood’s decision to escape (and risk the consequences of capture) rooted in the realization that he can no longer maintain his dignity in a place like Nickel?
6. At one point, the narrator writes that “laughter knocked out a few bricks from the wall of segregation, so tall and so wide.” Does humor truly lighten the burden for the boys? Or is it merely one of the very few things that can’t be taken away from them?
7. Who do you think was the true “villain” of the story? The teachers? The school itself? Something or someone else?

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