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Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer-winning book is based in Florida

‘The Nickel Boys,’ a work of fiction, was inspired by a brutal reform school in Marianna.
This image released by Doubleday ahoes "The Nickel Boys" by Colson Whitehead. The novel received a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction on Monday, May 4, 2020. (Doubleday via AP)
This image released by Doubleday ahoes "The Nickel Boys" by Colson Whitehead. The novel received a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction on Monday, May 4, 2020. (Doubleday via AP) [ AP ]
Published May 4, 2020|Updated May 4, 2020

On Monday, Colson Whitehead became the rare writer to win Pulitzer Prizes for two consecutive books.

“It’s pretty nuts!” Whitehead wrote in an email.

“Obviously I’m very honored," he wrote, "and I hope that it raises awareness of the real life model for the novel — the Dozier School for Boys — so that the victims and their stories are not forgotten.”

The Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, also known as the Florida School for Boys, was the spark for his 2019 novel The Nickel Boys, which won the 2020 Pulitzer for fiction. Whitehead’s most recent previous novel, The Underground Railroad, won the 2017 Pulitzer for fiction and the 2016 National Book Award.

Related: The real story behind the Dozier School for Boys

The Dozier School operated from 1900 to 2011 in Marianna. In 2009, the then-St. Petersburg Times published “For Their Own Good,” a series about the school that revealed a long history of beatings, rapes and unexplained deaths. The series by reporters Ben Montgomery and Waveney Ann Moore and photographer Edmund Fountain was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Several investigations by state agencies followed, and Whitehead first heard about the school in 2014, when a team of archeologists from the University of South Florida excavated a cemetery on school grounds and found more than 30 unmarked graves.

Related: An interview with Colson Whitehead about The Nickel Boys

The Pulitzer judges praised Whitehead’s novel as “a spare and devastating exploration of abuse at a reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida that is ultimately a powerful tale of human perseverance, dignity and redemption.”

Colson Whitehead won the 2020 Pulitzer prize for fiction for his novel "The Nickel Boys."
Colson Whitehead won the 2020 Pulitzer prize for fiction for his novel "The Nickel Boys." [ Chris Close ]

The Nickel Boys is the eighth novel by Whitehead, 50. He also has published two nonfiction books. A native of New York City, he graduated from Harvard and published his first novel, The Intuitionist, in 1999. He is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship (also known as the “genius award”), among other honors. His other novels include John Henry Days and Zone One. A television adaptation of The Underground Railroad, directed by Oscar winner Barry Jenkins (Moonlight), is upcoming on Amazon.

The other finalists for the 2020 fiction prize were Ben Lerner for The Topeka School and Ann Patchett for The Dutch House. See a complete list of winners and finalists at pulitzer.org.

Times files were used in this report.

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