Colson Whitehead's new novel 'is the work of a master'

"This is the rare novel that lives up to the hype."

'The Nickel Boys' by Colson Whitehead
'The Nickel Boys' by Colson Whitehead
Courtesy of publisher

Every week, The Thread checks in with booksellers around the country about their favorite books of the moment. This week, we spoke to Danny Caine at The Raven Book Store in Lawrence, Kan.

What do you do after snagging both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award? If you’re Colson Whitehead, you come back with another masterpiece.

Whitehead’s new novel “The Nickel Boys” will be one of the biggest books of the year, says bookseller Danny Caine.

It’s set in a fictional reform school, though it’s based on an actual institution where young black men were imprisoned.

“It’s based on a real-life reform school in Florida, and the investigations that are ongoing into its cruel past,” Caine said. The novel follows Elwood Curtis, who is accidentally sent to Nickel.

“The story traces his time there, trying to avoid the cruelties of the system and befriending a kind of wild and rebellious fellow student there. … It’s much like ‘The Underground Railroad,’” which is Colson Whitehead’s previous novel. It’s a reimagining and retelling of a historic part of American history known for its cruelty to black people.

“I remember my first thought when putting it down after I finished it was: Colson Whitehead is our best novelist. This is the work of a master. I think we’re really watching Colson Whitehead enter the peak of his power, and it’s a thrill. … I really feel like this is the rare novel that lives up to the hype. I can imagine teaching this to high schoolers in years to come.”

With the release of the “The Nickel Boys,” Whitehead gave a nod to the community of indie booksellers who have hand-sold his novels for years: Signed first editions of the book are only available through indie shops like The Raven Book Store, where Caine works.

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