The Nickel Boys is a book by Colson Whitehead. It starts at the ending, 50 years later, with an unmarked grave, full of bones, on the north side of Boot Hill. We must go back in time to find out the details.
This post is full of spoilers. If you’re looking for a review, read this one instead.
Elmwood Curtis is a black boy growing up in the south, in Tallahassee. His mother and father have moved to California to find their place in the world, leaving him behind with his grandmother, Harriett. The racism and lack of opportunity in Florida is too oppressive.
Harriett is strict, intent on keeping Elmwood out of trouble. She carefully monitors his friends and keeps him close. Although members of the family have worked in the Richmond Hotel for three generations, Elmwood won’t work there. He hangs out in the kitchen and plays games with the staff. When the staff changes, the new bunch are less friendly, and take advantage of his eagerness by tricking him into doing their chores. Then he is duped into a dishwashing race to win some encyclopedias, only to find out all but one of the books is blank. That marks the end of his time in the Richmond Hotel’s kitchen.
One of the few things Harriet plays as home is Martin Luther King’s speech, which inspires him. This inspires Elmwood to want to be a person of honor.
Elmwood starts working after school and on weekends at Mr. Marconi’s store at the age of 13.
Making a Path in the World
Elmwood’s friends do not appreciate his sense of honor when he makes then return some stolen sweets. Mr. Marconi had said be didn’t mind, because the kids would turn into loyal customers, but Elmwood saw it as an affront to his dignity. He’d known the two boys, Larry and Willie, his whole life. He’d been at the store with them when they stole things previously. But he just couldn’t let it go one day, after he started working at Mr. Marconi’s store.
This is an example of Elmwood’s struggle to find his way in the world. On the way home, he is jumped by the two boys. He stood no chance against the two of them. With the chain on his bike also popped, he had to walk it and himself home.
The Civil Rights Movement
A turning point in Elmwood’s education is the arrival of a black teacher, Mr. Hil, in his junior year. This teacher is active in the civil rights movement. Inspired, Elmwood went to a protest although his grandmother disapproved. When she found out (three days later), she punished him with silence for a week.
Mr. Hill offered Elmwood the opportunity to attend college classes. His grandmother approved and he was excited. Mr. Marconi even gave him a new fountain pen. Elmwood left home early to walk the 7 miles or hitch a ride since his bike was still broken.
7 Miles Short
Elmwood chose to flag down a Plymouth driven by a black man. Unfortunately, the car was a stolen vehicle. When the police stopped the car, Elmwood was arrested. He was allowed 3 days at home before being taken to a reform school, Nickel.
Nickel Academy – Reform School
At Nickel, the boys had segregated living quarters. It was a new experience for Elmwood living in such close quarters and he needed to learn quickly. That lesson wasn’t long in coming. He tried to help a younger student by standing up to a bully. The white houseman who caught them asked no questions. That night, they were all taken from the dorm to the White House and beaten with a whip called Black Beauty. The superintendent, Spencer, wielded the whip. Although this was outlawed in the state, the authorities turned a blind eye. But to mask the screams, an industrial fan was used during beatings, spreading the news of the punishment to all the boys. It took Elmwood over 7 days to recover from that first beating. In that time, Turner manages to find himself in the infirmary for a visit.
Turner has been at Nickel before. On this return visit, he keeps his head down and minds his own business. He tries to teach Elmwood that this is the best way to get through Nickel, but it’s too late. He’s already caught the attention of the teachers by asking for more challenging work, and taken back to the White House. But the beating has one upside; it makes Elmwood one of them.
Elmwood carved each syllable with such precision that the students around him stirred from their reveries, curious as to what kind of black boy talked like that.Chapter 5, The Nickel Boys
Many of the employees preyed on the black boys, raping them, beating them, torturing them, and feeding them minimally. They were also a commodity, being used for projects and events that brought funding to the school. One such event was a yearly boxing math. The top guy among the black dorms would fight the one from the white dorms. Spencer commanded Griff to throw the game in the 3rd round. Betting was heavy for the game, and Spencer expected to win. However, Griff got confused and didn’t throw the fight; he thought the third round was the second. He was pulled out of bed that night and never seen again.
Elmwood got assigned to Community Service with his closest friend, Turner, and a white houseman, Harper. On these weekly trips, he realized that most of the food from the black dorms were being sold to companies around the city of Eleanor. The boys were put to work on the grounds of the school and also loaned to people in the community, including the trustees of the school.
A Plan to Get Out
Elmwood had a plan. A boy could get out of the school when their time was up, or earlier based on good behavior. It was like a game, where you could level up based on an obscure set of rules. His challenge to himself was to advance through the levels as quickly as possible and get released from Nickel. But then he realized that the game was rigged. Considering that escaping was rarely successful, he decided to burn the school by writing a letter revealing the abuse happening there along with other examples of breaking the law.
Some state official were coming to inspect the school, a surprise visit which was leaked. There was scurrying in the black dorms by the administration to make everything look above board, clean, tidy.
Elmwood had records of all the off-campus jobs that he and Turner did with Harper. He wrote a letter to give to one of the inspectors. When he told Turner about it, Turner was mad, thinking that Elmwood would be unsuccessful and end up in trouble.
Elmwood did not have a chance to deliver the letter. He was dispatched to run to the sweet potato fields to let the the overseer, Mr. Gladwell, know that the inspectors would not make it to the fields so he could relax. Turner, at the last moment, decided to deliver the letter for Elmwood.
Elmwood had calculated the risks. He knew that his identity would be clear from the letter, but he thought the authorities would have time to do something before he was punished
Nothing happened, or at least not what be hoped. He was pulled from his bed one night, taken to the White House and whipped. Then he was put in solitary confinement.
A New Plan to Get Out
After three weeks, Turner showed up with clothes for Elmwood and they took off on their escape. Turner had heard that the admin planned to get rid of Elmwood that night. They got bikes from a house where they knew the owner was out of town. At first they stayed off the road, but then they got complacent and started biking on the road.
When Turner recognized the Nickel truck behind them, they took off from their bikes, jumped a fence and ran into a field. The first gun shot missed but the second did not. One of the boys jumped the fence and made it to the other side; for the other, that was the end of the journey.
A New Life in New York
We meet Elmwood in New York. He’s working for a moving company. And then he opens his own company, hires people, grows Ace Moving. We learn that there are sometime reunions but he never goes. For the most part, the Nickel boys cannot escape their trauma and die in various situations.
Elmwood is one of the lucky ones. He has bad dreams and PTSD but has built a life for himself. He has a successful company and a wife, a good relationship. But his wife knows little of his past.
When the unmarked grave is uncovered, Elmwood decides it’s time to go back to Florida. He finally reveals all the pieces of himself to his wife, and tells her of his history. The big reveal is there he is Jack Turner, having taken over Elmwood’s name, because it felt right to honor him this way.
Going Full Circle
Turner goes back to Tallahassee alone. NIckel has been closed for three years. He is not sure if he will be arrested or what will happen but he decides to be the voice of the black boys; the other ex-student speaking out are white Nickel boys.
We come full circle. As a young boy in the Richmond Hotel’s kitchen, every time the dining room door opened, Elmwood would check for a black person in there. He never got to see it happen. But on Turner’s return to Florida, he stays at the Radisson, built on the foundation of the Richmond Hotel. The story ends with him having dinner there. He’s too tired to realize he’s heard the name of that hotel before.