58 pages 1 hour read

Colson Whitehead

The Nickel Boys

Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 2019

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Summary and Study Guide


Like his 2016 bestseller, The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys (2019) won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (Whitehead is only the fourth writer in history to win two Pulitzers). The Nickel Boys describes life in a reform school from the point of view of young Black teenager. Whitehead based Nickel Academy on the real life Dozier School, a Florida facility that ran for over a century, until a university investigation publicized its racist and abusive practices.

In addition to two Pulitzers, Whitehead is also the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship (2002) and a Guggenheim Fellowship (2013). NPR called Whitehead “one of the most gifted novelists in America today.”

Plot Summary

The Nickel Boys recounts the life of Elwood Curtis, an African American boy growing up in Florida during the early years of the Civil Rights movement. Elwood, who lives with his grandmother, is dutiful, industrious, and filled with idealism. He excels in school, works hard, and has a strong support network of teachers, his employer, and his grandmother, who envision a bright future for young Elwood. Their hopes seem fulfilled when Elwood gets into a local Black college, where he will take advanced classes available to high-achieving high school students. The college is far from Elwood’s home, so he decides to hitch a ride rather than walking the seven miles. After a man driving a stolen car picks him up, a police officer pulls them over. Elwood is implicated in the theft, and a judge sentences him to time in Nickel Academy, a notorious institution for juvenile offenders.

Elwood decides to keep his head down, stay out of trouble, and simply survive until he’s served his time. He befriends Turner, a more experienced boy who sees Elwood as naïve, but admires his optimism and devotion to social justice. However, Elwood cannot repress his innate desire to right wrongs. When he defends a smaller boy from bullies, he learns that noble gestures have no place in Nickel. The sadistic superintendent Spencer takes Elwood, the bullies, and their victim to the White House (a small shed near the dormitories), where he beats them severely with a leather strap. The beating changes Elwood. At first, he is cowed. He has nightmares, and the slightest sounds trigger his memory of the strap. Over time, however, he grows angry, and his sense of justice kicks in. Griff, the bully who has victimized many of Nickel’s weaker Black boys, fails to take a dive in a fixed boxing match that the superintendent and townspeople bet on, he is quietly taken out to the whipping post and is never seen again.

While on Community Service detail with Turner, Elwood realizes that Nickel’s administration is committing fraud against the state of Florida by selling resources earmarked for Black students to local businesses. He keeps meticulous records of each delivery, hoping to reveal the corruption to someone who can make a difference. He resolves to see those responsible pay a price for his beating, for the general atmosphere of terror and abuse, and for the misappropriation of funds that fuels discrepancies between the segregated White and Black facilities at Nickel.

When state inspectors arrive to review Nickel’s legal compliance, Elwood is unable to deliver his evidence, and entrusts Turner to do it for him. Turner betrays him, however, and turns the evidence over to Spencer, the sadistic superintendent who drags Elwood to the White House once again. After another cruel beating, Elwood is locked in solitary confinement, where he begins to lose hope. Throughout the novel, there are sporadic glimpses of the future: Elwood living in New York, and eventually finding success as a business owner and happiness as a married man. Elwood, it seems, has managed to prosper, despite the ghosts of his past.

Back at Nickel, Turner rescues Elwood from solitary, and they flee during the night. Spencer and his subordinates spot them riding stolen bicycles along a county road. When Turner and Elwood run across a pasture toward the cover of nearby woods, Spencer and his men jump out of the van and shoot at the fleeing boys. Turner escapes into the woods, but Elwood is killed. Whitehead then reveals that the man who calls himself Elwood Curtis in the glimpses into the future is actually Turner. Turner took Elwood’s identity as a survival strategy and a tribute to his dead friend. In the end, with Nickel’s unmarked graves excavated by researchers into its horrible history, Turner takes one final trip down to Florida to tell the world about Nickel, and to seek a final measure of justice for Elwood.

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