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.
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...
(The entire section is 2,479 words.)