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Last Updated on November 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2479

Colson Whitehead's The Nickel Boys begins with a flash-forward. At the start of the novel, a secret graveyard has just been discovered by a researcher called Jody. The graveyard belongs to Nickel Academy, formerly a reform school for boys. The former inhabitants of Nickel have a relationship now with the archaeology students who are digging up the graveyard, but mostly they have not gone on to great things. Many of them are in prison or renting cheap apartments. Most of them have tried to forget about Nickel until the discovery of the graveyard means they are forced to pay attention to it once again. One of them is a man named Elwood. The book flashes forward to present-day Elwood on several occasions throughout the story.

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The book then returns to 1962, when Elwood is a young black boy in Tallahassee who "carries himself differently from" his peers, for a number of reasons, but especially because he is highly intelligent. He lives with his grandmother, Harriet, and his rather distant mother, Evelyn, who pays him little attention and abandons him at the age of six. As a child, he spends most of his evenings at the Richmond Hotel, where his grandmother and mother are employees and where he is usually kept company by the dishwashers and busboys. Aware that he is keenly intelligent, they offer him a collection of encyclopedias that have been left at the hotel if he can dry dishes faster than they can. When he does win the encyclopedias, only to discover that they are all empty, he wonders whether the boys had known this all along and been teasing him. He keeps the empty encyclopedias anyway, even until the leather begins to peel from the spines.

Elwood's grandmother, like Elwood, is interested in the progress of the civil rights movement; his grandmother has always told him that he is no less a person than the white children who have access to theme parks, like Fun Town, and good schools. She is, however, cynical about the idea of Brown versus the Board of Education having any immediate effect: Jim Crow, she says, can't be expected to leave America "all by himself." While Elwood waits to see more black people come into the Richmond Hotel, Harriet says that it takes more than laws to make people do what is right.

Elwood is a hard worker. He begins to work for a white man, Mr. Marconi, in his store, where he makes enemies by preventing other black boys from stealing sweets. By the time he gets to high school, Elwood is adamantly interested in civil rights. This is noticed by his teacher, Mr. Hill, who feels similarly and has attended numerous protests, where white men have often attacked him. Inspired by Mr. Hill, Elwood takes a key role in a school play.

Sit-ins begin as a form of protest in Tallahassee, and Elwood's grandmother, Harriet, joins them. However, she tells Elwood he has already committed to work for Mr. Marconi after school, so it isn't for him to join—it is more important for him to demonstrate that he is trustworthy. But Elwood feels strongly that civil rights participation is more important. He disobeys her and pickets the Florida Theater, which continues to refuse admittance to black people. Although he is punished harshly for this by Harriet—who does not want to see his life ruined—it does not dissuade him from his interest in civil rights and, indeed, results in him writing a number of protest letters, under a false name, to a local newspaper.

It is this continued interest in civil rights that convinces Mr. Hill that Elwood is destined for greater things than Lincoln High School, with its secondhand textbooks and uninterested students. He suggests that Elwood might like to study at college level at a local school for black boys, which allows free admittance based on academic merit. Ironically, this move, which could have helped Elwood achieve beyond what others might have expected of him, actually causes his downfall, through no fault of his own. On his way to college, Elwood is picked up by a man whose vehicle turns out to have been stolen. Accused of being complicit in this crime, Elwood is sent to Nickel Academy, a reform school for juvenile delinquents.

At first, Elwood is heartened by the appearance of Nickel Academy. It's outside the realm of his experience, not least because he's driven to the school in the company of two white boys, Franklin and Billy. It is implied that because the school caters to white boys as well as black, it might be better provided for than if it had been purely for black students. The school superintendent, Maynard Spencer, describes the progression of students from Grub level through Explorer and Pioneer to Ace, the point at which they will have redeemed themselves and can leave.

However, it quickly becomes clear that the school is not a desegregated haven—Elwood is sent to the black section of the school, while the white boys are led elsewhere. Once confined to his own section, Cleveland House, Elwood learns that the point of the reform school is not only for the teachers to to provide an education, but also for the boys to provide labor and help with housework. On his first night, a "forbidding and mechanical . . . roar" wakes Elwood from sleep, while another boy in the dormitory comments that "someone's going out for ice cream." It is clear that this noise is a common occurrence—and that "going out for ice cream" is a euphemism for something sinister.

At first, Elwood is sure he will not be able to get used to this strange place, where his pillow smells like vinegar and strange sounds disturb him at night. However, he does befriend some other students, particularly Turner and Desmond. Still driven and ambitious, Elwood is distressed that the material he is provided with in class is not challenging for him. He worries that this will prevent him from progressing to Ace level and leaving quickly. This is his goal, but his desire to see justice done also remains strong, such that when he sees one of the younger boys, Corey, being bullied, Elwood leaps to his defense. This results in the whole group—Elwood, Corey, and the bullies—being sent to the superintendent to be disciplined.

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It is at this point that Elwood discovers the origin of the noises that disturb Elwood at night and the meaning of the phrase "to go out for ice cream." The Ice Cream Factory is the name given by the boys to a shed used for discipline. The boys are beaten here with a strap; the more they protest, the harder they are beaten. The "forbidding . . . roar" is the sound of the fan overhead, which serves to smother some of the noise made by the boys.

Elwood is beaten so badly that he has to be sent to the school's hospital ward. He is very conscious of having been dealt an injustice, but when his friend Turner arrives in the ward, having intentionally poisoned himself with soap flakes, he tells Elwood that he's been lucky—many boys don't survive their beatings at all. Boys survive by being quiet. Those who talk are not so lucky. Disturbed by this warning, Elwood does not speak up to his grandmother when she visits him. He wants to say, "look at what they did to me," but instead tells her he is "okay but sad," not wanting to distress her.

At this point, Elwood thinks back to what Harriet said to him before the sit-ins. She noted that "acting above your station" was often what caused black people to be punished; he knew that this had happened to his teacher, Mr. Hill, and wondered whether his requests for more difficult class material had turned the schoolmasters against him and resulted in his being beaten more violently than the other boys. At this point, Elwood becomes still more determined to escape the institution by climbing the "merit ladder." He thinks the best way to do this is to keep his head down and "avoid trouble."

Elwood and Turner have become quite close by this time—we learn that they spend time together "most days" and play checkers. When Smitty, the boy who previously joined Turner on his assignment—Community Service—becomes an Ace and graduates, Turner suggests that Elwood should replace him. Turner knows this will be a relief for Elwood, as the assignment allows them both to escape the campus and get to know each other better. They travel around with Harper, a twenty-year-old whom Turner deems "all right for a white man," and sell supplies around town. Elwood learns that, for example, all the toothpaste meant for Nickel Academy is sold on these runs. Elwood and Turner are even left to do some painting.

During Community Service, Turner tells Elwood his own story: he is now back in Nickel for the second time. He was working as a pinsetter in a bowling alley when another black man, Lou, accused him of "shucking and jiving for these white people" for tips. This embarrassed Turner, and the next time the white men were in, he was rude to them, until one of them tried to hit him. His friends held him back, but Turner later threw a cinder block at the man's car, resulting in him being sent back to Nickel.

Elwood is then permanently assigned to Community Service, as the white men have noticed his "industrious nature." At this juncture, he starts to write down "the particulars" of everything he has done while on Community Service.

It is clear that black boys suffer worse than their white peers in many ways at Nickel, but Dr. Campbell, we learn, takes some of the white boys out "on dates"— that is, he sexually abuses them. Meanwhile, when the staff are betting on boxing matches between the black and white boys, one of the boys who has been asked to lose the fight, Griff, forgets his instructions and wins. He disappears—"They came for Griff that night and he never returned." Elwood realizes that Griff represents every black boy at that school: they are disposable.

At Christmas time, Elwood and Turner discuss during Community Service the idea of escaping. Turner says, "Don't take no one with you," as this will result in the would-be escapee being dragged down. When they return to the camp, although there has been a fight and a fuss over a prank, the Christmas lights are on, and they observe that they "did a good job," remembering that there are good things in the world—even if they are mainly reserved for white people.

A flash-forward assures readers—or seems to—that Elwood is doing better in 1968. We see him with his girlfriend, Denise, "tall and Harlem tough." He is running a moving company, Ace Moving, the name taken inadvertently from Nickel.

Nickel has only four escape routes: "serve your time," "the court might intervene," "you could die," and "you could run." One person who did run, Clayton Smith, became "an object lesson" to students when they discovered that he had actually been driven straight back to Nickel and killed. But Elwood "cook[s] up a fifth way out" when his grandmother visits. Harriet is crying because the "nice white lawyer" who had promised to help free Elwood has stolen her money and run. At this point, Elwood determines that there is in fact a fifth escape route: "Get rid of Nickel."

By 1988, Elwood is doing well. He meets a fellow former Nickel student, Chickie Pete, who has spent "thirty days drying out," and they go to a bar. Surprised that the story of his escape hasn't been passed around "like a folk legend," Elwood realizes that Chickie and the others didn't know how he had escaped. Chickie asks what happened to "that guy with that thing . . . I'm trying to remember," who had been friends with Elwood. Elwood pretends not to know whom he means.

Back in the past, we learn that Nickel was sometimes inspected. Before a state inspection, classes are suspended for two days. Elwood and Turner are charged with removing "sixty years' of junk" from the basement of a Mr. Childs, and Elwood is touched by the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his memory, prompted by a stack of newspapers they find: "Throw us in jail and we will still love you." He decides to tell the inspectors about the improprieties Elwood has been writing down in his notebook—all the things improperly sold. Turner says this is a bad idea and will result in Elwood being killed, but he relents when Elwood tries to anonymously hand over his information and can't manage to do so. Turner tells Elwood that he has "delivered the mail" in secret. Later that night, Elwood wakes to "flashlights crawling all over his face" before he is taken to the White House for punishment.

By the early 2000s, Elwood is doing still better, with another woman, Millie. He is grateful to have her.

Back in Nickel, it transpires that the letter has been found, and Elwood is beaten again and then locked up. He is kept in his cell for days, being punished by the superintendent. Left to his thoughts, Elwood thinks about how the "daddies" kept slaves in line and about the words of Dr. King. He is in a jail within a jail, and he despairs when Turner arrives and says, "They're going to take you out back tomorrow"—that is, to kill him. Despite Turner's note that escapees should always go alone, he can't let Elwood be killed, and the two of them escape together on bikes. They are almost at the town when two men arrive in a van, one of them Harper from Community Service. They have shotguns. When the two boys run off, Harper shoots Elwood, who "stumble[s] forward two steps" and falls into the grass. Turner continues to run.

At this point, the narration return to the time period of the beginning of the story. The graveyard has been discovered, and present-day Elwood—who we now realize is actually Turner—is flying back to Tallahassee. He has used Elwood's name since his escape, "to live for him." He confesses everything to his wife, Millie: that he had been in juvie and that his name is really Jack Turner. He declares that he is "going to take a stand," find Elwood's grave, and tell the world what happened to him, because black boys deserve to be defended, too.

He ends the story in a restaurant called Blondie's, which was once the Richmond Hotel. The man who is now Elwood Curtis has come home to the place where the real Elwood's story began.

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