Last Updated on November 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1024
Elwood is the novel's protagonist. He was born in Tallahassee, Florida, to an absent mother, Evelyn, who abandoned him at the age of six. He spent much of his early life at the Richmond Hotel, where both his mother and his grandmother worked. Always noted for being "industrious," Elwood is intelligent and hardworking. He has a keen interest in civil rights, noticing when desegregation is made law in schools and always seeking black faces at the Richmond Hotel. When young, he begins to work for Mr. Marconi in his store, stars in a school play, and catches the attention of his teacher, Mr. Hill, who recommends him for progression to a college for "colored" boys. A misunderstanding over a stolen car results in him being sent to Nickel Academy, where he finds the conditions unfair and the schoolwork less than challenging. He is beaten badly and thinks it is because he has acted "above his station," but this only makes him more determined to find his way out of Nickel Academy—by bringing the school down if necessary. Inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he tries to bring down Nickel Academy by passing information about improprieties to school inspectors, but this results in him being put in solitary confinement. After his friend, Jack Turner, tries to free him before he can be killed, Elwood is shot while trying to escape by employees of Nickel Academy.
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Jack Turner becomes close friends with Elwood during his second stint in Nickel Academy. He has been sent back to Nickel because of an argument at a bowling alley where he worked—when another black man complains that he "jives" in front of white people for tips, he becomes embarrassed and throws a cinder block through a white man's car window. In Nickel, Jack at first just wants to make his own life as easy as possible. He does not think the boys can really help each other, as they will simply drag each other down, and expresses this to Elwood. However, he becomes increasingly influenced by Elwood and, eventually, despite telling Elwood it is a bad idea to speak up, passes a letter from Elwood to the school inspectors, complaining about conditions and how the institution is run. When Elwood is thrown into solitary confinement, Turner breaks him out. After Elwood is shot during the escape, Turner takes Elwood's name "to honor" him. Turner, now called Elwood, is the man we see in the flash forward sections of the book. At the end of the story, he returns to Nickel to represent all the black boys who had no voice and to tell the story of what happened to his friend.
Harriet is Elwood's grandmother. She is primarily responsible for raising her grandson and tries to advise him away from becoming involved in civil rights protests, even though she is involved herself. She wants him to be seen as respectable and industrious so that he can do well. When he is sent to Nickel Academy, she employs a lawyer to try and free him, but the lawyer steals her money, leaving her feeling helpless. She strongly believes in civil rights but does not believe laws can make anyone do the right thing if they don't want to.
Mr Marconi is a white man who owns a grocery store. He is one of the first white men to take a keen interest in the young Elwood, observing that he is industrious and a good worker, as well as being intelligent. Mr. Marconi is impressed when Elwood makes enemies among the other black boys by preventing them from stealing sweets from the store.
Mr. Hill is a teacher at Lincoln County High School. He is a young black man who has been involved in civil rights protests himself, and he encourages his students to scribble out the racist graffiti in their secondhand textbooks. Spotting the talent in Elwood, he casts Elwood in a school play and later encourages him to take free classes at a college which offers free admission to black students of merit.
Superintendent Spencer runs Nickel Academy. He is aware of everything that goes on in the school and orchestrates such illicit behavior as selling the school's supplies for profit, betting on wrestling matches between the boys, beating the boys in the White House, and ultimately killing those who try to run. At the end of the story, it is Spencer who throws Elwood into solitary confinement.
Harper is a twenty-year-old whom Turner considers to be "all right for a white man." He accompanies Turner and Elwood on their Community Service runs and generally trusts them to supervise themselves. However, he is ultimately in the pay of Spencer and, at the end of the story, shoots and kills Elwood on Spencer's orders.
Desmond is a young black boy in the same house as Turner and Elwood. A friend of the pair, he does not have the instinct for self-preservation that Elwood does. During Christmas celebrations, he takes part in a prank involving a can of horse medicine, with which he and a friend, Jaimie, plan to poison a staff member.
Jaimie, who is Mexican, represents the absurdity of the school's segregated system in that he is frequently moved between the black block and the white block, as the staff at Nickel cannot decide where he should go or whether he is black or white. He spends time with Elwood, Turner, and Desmond.
Griff is a black boy of lesser intelligence but extreme physical strength. He is chosen to participate in a boxing match but asked to throw the match by Spencer, who is betting on it. When he forgets his instructions and wins, he is killed and buried in the graveyard discovered at the end of the story.
Mille is the woman Jack Turner, now Elwood Curtis, eventually marries. She learns his real identity after the graveyard is discovered at Nickel. Turner/Elwood views her as his salvation: she represents all that is good in the world to him and prevents him from dwelling on Nickel in his darker moments.