The Nickel Boys Book Summary, by Colson Whitehead

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Like his 2016 bestseller, The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead’s new book (2019) won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It is based on a real reform school in Florida that was known for its racist and abusive practices.

In addition to Pulitzer Prizes, Whitehead also received a MacArthur Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship. NPR called him “one of the most gifted novelists in America today.”

The Nickel Boys is a novel about Elwood Curtis, a young African American boy growing up in Florida during the Civil Rights era. His grandmother takes care of him and he excels at school and works hard to become successful. He gets into college but then rides with someone who steals a car, which puts him in jail for five years. The book follows his life as he tries to adjust to prison life and how it changes him forever.

Elwood is a new inmate at the Nickel Academy. He decides to keep his head down and not get into trouble, because he knows that if he does, it will only make things worse for him. However, Elwood can’t help but stand up for what’s right when someone else needs help. When he helps another boy who’s being bullied by some older boys in the prison, they all end up getting punished severely with a leather strap. The superintendent of the prison beats them all badly with this strap and it changes Elwood completely. At first, he becomes very scared of everything after being beaten so badly and has nightmares about it happening again. Over time though, his anger grows stronger than ever before as well as his desire to do something about injustice that happens around him in the world. Eventually one day while everyone is watching two inmates fight each other in an organized boxing match (which was fixed), Griff (a bully who always picks on weaker Black inmates) doesn’t throw any punches during the fight like everyone expects him to do so they set up a special punishment for him later that night where they take him out behind their shed which is called “the White House” where there’s only one thing waiting for Griff—a beating from Mr Spenser using a leather belt just like what happened to Elwood earlier!

Elwood realizes that the administration is committing fraud by selling resources earmarked for Black students to local businesses. He keeps meticulous records of each delivery, hoping to expose the corruption and make a change in the school’s policies. He resolves to see those responsible pay for his beating as well as changing their policy and providing equal facilities for both races at Nickel.

When state inspectors come to review the prison, Elwood is unable to present his evidence. He entrusts Turner with it, but he betrays him and gives it to Spencer. Spencer beats up Elwood again and locks him in solitary confinement. While there, Elwood begins losing hope for a better future. Throughout the book, there are glimpses of what might happen if he does get out of prison: living in New York City and eventually becoming successful as a business owner and married man.

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 in one of those glimpses into future time, it’s actually Turner who takes on Elwood’s identity as a survival strategy to get away from Nickel while also paying tribute to his dead friend by taking on his name after he dies. In this way he can tell people about what happened at Nickel without revealing himself as an escapee or endangering anyone else involved with him there. With all of their graves being excavated by researchers looking for information about how many died there over its history (including several children), Turner decides that he needs to go back to Florida once more so that everyone can know what really happened at Nickel—and so that justice can finally be served for young Elwood Curtis’ death.

Full Summary of The Nickel Boys

Overall Summary

During an archaeological study, the team found a secret graveyard on the grounds of what used to be Nickel Academy. The school has been closed for years, and there are many stories about it from alumni who were abused there. As the media reports these findings, more people talk about their experiences at Nickel. One person in particular is Elwood Curtis who lives in New York City and keeps tabs on the news related to his old school but doesn’t go back because he thinks that confronting his past would only hurt him further.

Elwood grew up in Tallahassee, Florida during the 1950s and 1960s. He was raised by his grandmother who worked as a waitress at the Richmond Hotel. Elwood watched her serve black patrons in one room of the hotel while white patrons were served in another room. The Supreme Court had recently ruled that segregated schools are illegal, so he thought all of these “visible walls” would soon come down and everyone could be treated equally. However, his grandmother told him that it’s not easy to tell people what they should do when they don’t want to listen or follow your advice.

Elwood, a teenager, works at Mr. Macroni’s cigar shop. Elwood is hardworking and has high morals because he wants to be like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., an African American civil rights activist who was assassinated in 1968. In one of his speeches, King urges African Americans to have self-respect by working hard and rejecting racism. This idea inspires Elwood to work hard and develop good morals so that he can succeed in life without compromising himself or his values.

Elwood is a young boy in high school. His new history teacher, Mr. Hill, is involved in the Civil Rights Movement and quickly takes Elwood under his wing. Around this time, Elwood decides to attend a rally outside of the Florida Theatre because he wants to be part of something bigger than himself and fight for equality. He doesn’t tell his grandmother because she’s against it but goes anyway when he sees Mr. Hill at the protest as well as other dedicated activists who accept him into their group with open arms and make him feel like he belongs somewhere for the first time ever

A black college in Florida is looking for students who are motivated to take free classes while finishing their high school degrees. Elwood, a young African-American man, hears about this opportunity and pursues it. He gets into a fancy car driven by a black man before getting pulled over by the police. The driver of the car gets arrested, but Elwood does too because he’s white and was riding with him in his stolen car. Instead of attending Melvin Griggs Technical College as planned, he goes to Nickel Academy instead where there’s segregation between white and black students

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On his first night at Nickel, Elwood walked into the bathroom to find two bullies named Lonnie and Black Mike beating up a younger boy named Corey. When he tried to intervene, a staff member reported all four boys to Superintendent Spencer. Spencer explained how Nickel worked when Elwood arrived on campus—students earn points for working hard and behaving well, which helps them move up ranks until they’re released back into society.

At one in the morning, Spencer and his sidekick take four boys from their beds and bring them to the White House. There they torture students for fun. Elwood is beaten by Spencer who lashes at him with a whip until he passes out.

Elwood is in the infirmary for a long time after he gets beaten up. He meets Turner, who ate soap to avoid work and school. The schedule at Nickel shocks Elwood, because the students only attend class every other day and spend their time doing physical labor. They have no way of knowing when they will be punished or get merits if they do well academically.

Turner tells Elwood that he received more lashes than most students, but that it was still better than the alternative. He says that sometimes boys never return from the White House, which astounds Elwood because Turner had told him to keep quiet about Nickel’s abuses. The only way to survive in this place is by keeping to oneself, so Turner tries to follow his advice and not speak up when he gets out of the hospital. When he does get back on his feet, Turner recommends Elwood for a position on Community Service team with himself as part of it. Harper is their supervisor and treats them kindly since they’re all doing work together anyway and are effectively equals. They drive around town doing chores for themselves or selling goods given by the government that no one else wants.

The story occasionally jumps to the future, where Elwood is living in New York City. After leaving Nickel Academy, he became a successful professional mover and has been working for 50 years. One day, he runs into an old classmate named Chickie Pete who insists on buying him a drink at a bar. This leads them to talk about their time at Nickel and how they’ve both done since then. It turns out that Chickie is an alcoholic with a sad life after graduating from school but still seems happy when talking about his past experiences with Elwood. He doesn’t seem to remember that Elwood escaped while everyone else was left behind though it’s not clear what this means yet or why it even matters at all now as they’re older men reminiscing about their youth together.

In the 1960s, government workers were going to inspect a school in Mississippi. The director of that school canceled classes and had his students clean up the campus so it would look good for the inspectors. One student wrote a note about all of the illegal things happening at that school, but he was afraid if anyone found out he wrote it, they would kill him. He told this to another student who said there are two iron rings on campus where black people were chained and tortured until they died.

On the day of inspection, Elwood puts the letter in his pocket. However, he can’t get close to the inspectors because he’s standing right there with them. So instead, Harper runs an errand on another side of campus and Turner volunteers to deliver it for him.

Turner successfully delivers Elwood’s letter to the inspectors. Spencer beats him up again, but this time he locks him in solitary confinement because he thinks that if they get the letter and investigate, it will be bad for them. Turner hears that Spencer is going to kill Elwood soon so he helps him escape with a bicycle after 3 weeks of being locked up. Turner always says no one should go with him when he escapes, but since Elwood would die without help, Turner breaks his own rule and takes the risk by helping him out. He knows Harper and another staff member are coming so they ditch their bicycles and run through a field until they reach a fence where Turner jumps over first while leaving Elwood behind who then gets shot by Harper as soon as he looks back at her.

At the end of the novel, Turner returns to Florida. For the past 50 years he has been using Elwood’s name as his own. He sees this as a tribute to Elwood, who he hopes would be proud of the life he’s built. He is now married to a loving woman named Millie, and though he kept her in the dark about his past, he finally tells her about it when they return to Tallahassee together so that she can accept that Turner must go back there alone and bury Elwood’s body properly. When Turner arrives at his hotel room in Tallahassee, he goes downstairs for dinner where we learn that the hotel used to be called The Richmond and even though Turner doesn’t remember Elwood telling him this story before their escape from Nickel (a time period which occurred over 50 years ago), it turns out that after all these years have passed since then, Turner ends up fulfilling what was only ever just an old man’s dream anyway: “Turner sat down at one of two empty tables by himself…He looked around but didn’t see anyone else sitting alone or waiting for someone.”

Prologue

The state attorney’s office has recently closed the case involving Nickel Academy, a reform school in Florida. The government is planning to turn the land into an office park, but they need to do an environmental survey first. However, archaeologists from USF have found bodies buried on the grounds of Nickel Academy and this will delay construction plans because the state attorney’s office has to look into whether or not abuse occurred at the school again before they can erase it from history.

A group of alumni have known about the secret graveyard for a while, but they’ve been ignored. However, now that an archaeology team has found the bodies in Boot Hill Cemetery, people are starting to believe them. They were able to identify 36 out of 43 bodies and reconnect those relatives with their ancestors.

Once the secret graveyard was discovered, people finally paid attention to what happened at Nickel Academy. The reform school’s pictures look haunted and sinister, as if each mark on the wall is made of blood and gore. Recently, some former students have created websites where they can tell their stories about sexual and physical abuse endured while attending the school. In this capacity, they discuss how connecting over their experiences makes them feel less alone.

One Nickel Boy runs a website where he posts stories and pictures sent to him by other survivors. It helps former students explain why they are the way they are, and it makes it easier for them to show loved ones their painful histories. Some of the men arrange a yearly trip to the school, paying it a visit and talking about what happened. They go there with varying levels of emotional strength in tow, depending on how much they’ve stored up for the journey.

Elwood Curtis is a man who lives in New York City. He’s read about his fellow alumni at Nickel, but he doesn’t participate in the annual reunions because he can’t see how it would benefit him to stand around and cry with them. However, Elwood has read an article on the website of Nickel about a man who drove to Superintendent Spencer’s house with the intention of beating him with a leather strap. When this man arrived at Spencer’s home, though, he couldn’t bring himself to go inside. This seems odd to Elwood because he thinks that after going through all that trouble the man should have followed through with his plan by attacking Superintendent Spencer even if it meant getting arrested for assault and battery. Although Elwood doesn’t want to take part in any reunions, when archaeologists find the secret graveyard from Nickel where they bury children who die there, Elwood knows that he will be forced back into contact with his past life as one of those dead children buried in that cemetery; therefore making him realize that despite leaving Nickel behind years ago due to being abused there as a child before running away from school forever never truly escaping its influence over his life since then when thinking about what happened while living there during childhood which still haunts him today whenever trying not think about what happened while living there during childhood which still haunts him today whenever trying not think about what happened while living there during childhood which still haunts him today whenever trying not think about what happened while living there during childhood which still haunts me…

Chapter One

On Christmas, Elwood receives a recording of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech at Zion Hill Baptist Church. He isn’t allowed to listen to Motown music because his grandmother believes it’s inappropriate. In particular, he likes Dr. King’s Fun Town speech about segregation and the importance of standing strong in the face of discrimination. He especially likes when Dr. King explains that his daughter is just as good as anybody who goes into Fun Town, which resonates powerfully with Elwood himself.

Elwood knows that Fun Town gives free admission to children who have perfect report cards. He saves up his many perfect report cards, waiting for the day when African Americans are allowed in Fun Town.

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Elwood’s grandmother works at the Richmond Hotel, where Elwood spends his time when he’s not in school. While she cleans rooms, he reads comic books in the kitchen. Before long, he starts competing with the dishwashers to see who can dry more plates faster and wins every time. Eventually, they realize that they can trick him into doing their work by giving him a set of encyclopedias as a prize for winning one of these races. He gets them home only to find out that they’re actually sales samples and don’t have any information on them at all.

Elwood is upset because the encyclopedias he bought are empty. He doesn’t tell anyone about his discovery, though. Years later, he thinks that the busboys were just trying to play a joke on him and make him do their work for them.

Chapter Two

Elwood is a young boy who’s always looking for ways to make money. He used to watch the hotel kitchen, betting on whether or not there was going to be a black customer in the dining room. The Supreme Court had ruled that schools must desegregate, so he thought all forms of segregation were going away, but he never saw any black customers at the Richmond Hotel. His grandmother told him that it would take time for people to change their behavior and do what they’re supposed to do.

After Elwood quits going to the Richmond with his grandmother, he gets a job at Mr. Macroni’s cigar shop in Frenchtown. Mr. Macroni is an Italian American man who originally set up his store during World War II because it was close to a military base and black soldiers would come there on weekends and buy large amounts of tobacco and condoms from him, proving that he was right about breaking segregation rules being profitable for businesses. After the war ended, though, Mr. Macroni moved his cigars into the back of the store and started selling comic books, candy, soda pop; basically anything family friendly so that more people could shop at his establishment without feeling uncomfortable or unwelcome due to their race or ethnic background. Around this time period when this change occurred in Mr. Macroni’s business plan (the end of WWII), he hired a young black man named Elwood Ponder as an employee/assistant manager to help him run things around the store since there were no other employees besides himself working in it at this point in time until Elwood came along to fill that position when another one opened up later on down the road for which he applied for after filling out an application form online through LinkedIn (a social media website) while sitting behind Steve Smith playing chess one day over by The Spot Barbershop located just across from Jay’s Restaurant & Lounge where they had free wifi access available for customers who wanted/needed internet access while waiting for their hair cut appointment etcetera ad infinitum.

Elwood’s grandmother is fine with Elwood working for Mr. Macroni because he seems like a good person and Elwood gives her half of his paycheck, which she puts toward a college fund. Elwood reads Life magazine to learn about the Civil Rights Movement, where he sees pictures of protestors who inspire him.

Mr. Macroni likes Elwood as an employee because he thinks that Elwood works hard and helps out with the shop’s black customers. However, Mr. Macroni also thinks that Elwood doesn’t know when to let things go. He becomes aware of this when he catches two boys stealing candy from his store. For his part, Mr. Macroni isn’t too bothered by kids stealing candy because children will be children in his opinion and parents may not come back if they’re embarrassed about what their children did anyway so why chase them out? That is until Elwood says “Put it back” to the boys trying to steal from him since Mr Macaroni didn’t expect a young boy would say such a thing!

Elwood has known the two shoplifters since he was a boy, and they used to play together. However, his grandmother didn’t like them because of their bad behavior. One day when Elwood is in town with candy from At Zion Hill, they steal it from him. Later that night, as Elwood rides home on his bike, they attack him and beat him up for what happened at the store earlier. They tell him that he doesn’t have any common sense and Elwood realizes that this might be true because he does things sometimes without thinking about them first.

Elwood thinks about Dr. King’s words and comes to a conclusion that he should have dignity in himself. If he does, then he would be able to stand up for others as well. He wonders how could someone who has dignity explain shoplifting to the person stealing from him?

Chapter Three

On the first day of school, Elwood and his classmates receive textbooks that were previously used by white students. The books have racial slurs written in them. This has been happening for years, but this year is different because Elwood’s teacher has a new idea to combat racism: he wants the students to color over the racist phrases with black markers.

Elwood is a great student, and his teacher notices this. He has been interested in the Civil Rights Movement since he was young without being able to participate because of his grandmother’s disapproval. Now that Elwood is old enough, however, he hears about a plan to protest at the Florida Theatre for not allowing black people inside. In 1963, Elwood believes that he can now be involved with the movement as one of its participants.

Elwood thinks that his grandmother will be proud of him, especially since she herself participated in the Frenchtown bus boycott of the 1950s. However, this was only because she didn’t want to be the only woman in Frenchtown who still rode the bus. On the whole, she believes that acting above one’s station will only bring trouble. After all, her own father died in prison after refusing to make way for a white woman on the sidewalk. Furthermore, Elwood’s father came back from the army with ideas about equality that didn’t fit into Tallahassee society at large. Given these outcomes and her experiences growing up during segregation, she tells Elwood not to go protest outside of a theater where black people aren’t allowed inside while he’s working there as a janitor because it would get him fired or possibly worse if he got arrested by police officers enforcing Jim Crow laws against African Americans.

Elwood is worried about his grandmother’s reaction when he asks for time off from work. However, Mr. Macroni gives him the day off without hesitation and Elwood heads to the Florida Theatre where students are protesting against inequality in America. He feels out of place at first but eventually is invited by a group of seniors who were also involved with activism during their high school days to join them in supporting equality and justice for all people.

Elwood’s grandmother was told by a friend that he was at the protest outside of the theater. She mentions this to him three days later, and she doesn’t punish him with a belt like she used to when he misbehaved. The next week is difficult for Elwood because his grandmother won’t let him listen to At Zion Hill, but at the same time he feels good about what he did in going to the protest. He starts looking forward to attending college so that he can act independently and pursue his dreams of activism and education.

Elwood spends the summer after his first year of college reading James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son.” The book helps him understand why he wants to become an activist, and it also clarifies that fighting for equality is important for everyone. He becomes more involved in activism by writing letters to newspapers and getting one piece published in the Chicago Defender.

One day, Mr. Hill tells Elwood that he has an opportunity for him and takes him to his friend’s shop. He explains that a college in Florida is opening its classes to academically successful black students who are interested in learning British Literature. The course will be free of charge, so Elwood decides to take it with his grandmother’s permission.

The day before Elwood’s first class at Melvin Griggs, Mr. Macroni gives him a beautiful pen. The next day, he sets off toward the school, planning to hitchhike the seven miles between his house and the campus. On his way, he gets a ride from a black man driving an impressive car. After riding with the man for a short time, Elwood notices police lights flashing behind them so he tells the driver to pull over because they are about to be pulled over by cops who think that only black people steal cars like this one (Plymouth).

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Chapter Four

Elwood has three days to get ready for his stint at Nickel Academy, a reform school. He will be staying with one of the white boys who was arrested along with him and is being sent to the same place. A police officer drives them there in a car and then leaves them off on the campus. Elwood is surprised by how well-kept it looks and even sees some students playing football. The superintendent tells him that he’s a Grub, which means he’ll have three nights before moving up to another level if he behaves well enough.

Spencer explains that students at Nickel can leave when they become Aces. To do this, Elwood needs to listen to his supervisors, do his work and study hard. Spencer finishes by warning the students against misbehaving or else they’ll be punished.

After Spencer’s introduction, another staff member leads Elwood to a room in the basement. He is then given an old school uniform and sent to live with the other black students. On his way, he meets Blakely who tells him that each student is responsible for their own destiny at Nickel Academy. The students have classes every other day instead of every day because work is emphasized here more than education. When Elwood asks about college classes, Blakely tells him to speak with Mr. Goodall—the teacher—about this matter instead of answering his question directly.

Elwood arrives at his dorm building, which is called Cleveland. He sees that the inside of the building is much worse than the outside. The couches are ripped and dirty with initials and curses etched into them, as well as buckled floors. Blakely shows him to his bed in a room with thirty bunks, introducing him to another student named Desmond. Before leaving he says “Don’t think I won’t be watching you.” That night Elwood wakes up to a strange whoosh that sounds mechanical and unrelenting. Wondering what it was, he hears a boy across the room say “Somebody’s going out for ice cream” and several other boys laugh in response.

Chapter Five

The next morning, Elwood is surprised to see the communal showers. He tries not to be alarmed when he sees that they’re cold and smell like sulfur. At breakfast, it’s difficult for him to find a place to sit because all of the seats are taken. When he finally does find one, he focuses on his food so that he doesn’t have to look at the boy across from him who might ask him if he can move over. This boy’s name is Turner and is astonished by how quickly Elwood eats since this food tastes terrible—old oatmeal with lots of cinnamon added in order to make it taste better than it really does.

Turner has a divot in his ear, but Elwood doesn’t stare at it. When Turner asks about Frenchtown, Elwood tells him that he’s from there and someone mocks the way he says this. The boy is named Griff and he’s intimidatingly large. Next to him are Lonnie and Black Mike who are just as menacing as their friend. All of the seats around them are empty because other students know better than to sit next to such a fearsome trio. After telling Griff off for something, Turner returns to talking with Elwood about Houston where he was born and raised before coming here today.

Elwood is surprised to learn that grades aren’t a factor in graduating from Nickel. Instead, students focus on earning merits and getting early release from the school by being good laborers. The author mentions that Desmond is one of these people who work hard both physically and academically so they can earn their way out of Nickel.

In class, Elwood is surprised to see that the books are ones he used in first grade. The other boys goof off and sleep while Mr. Goodall does nothing to stop them. At the end of class, Elwood asks for more challenging work, and Mr. Goodall promises to take it up with Director Hardee.

The next day, Elwood goes to work with other students. The leader of the group is a Mexican American boy named Jaimie. Because he has light skin that darkens when it’s outside in the sun, he frequently gets assigned to different dorms for white and black people. Whenever Spencer sees him among white people, he reassigns him to live with black people; however, whenever Director Hardee sees him there, he moves him back again. Despite this happening over and over again, Jaimie focuses on showing Elwood around campus by taking them to Boot Hill (the school cemetery). They don’t get too close since they’re afraid of what might happen if they do so. At one point during their walk through Boot Hill Cemetery, Elwood notices a small building nearby and asks why nobody mows the grass around it like they do everywhere else on campus. In response, two other boys tell him that nobody approaches this building unless someone forces them to do so.

One day, Elwood decides that he is going to graduate from Nickel High School two years early. However, his plan goes awry when he witnesses Lonnie and Black Mike beating up Corey in the bathroom. He steps forward to stop them but gets punched by Black Mike and thrown against the sink. Just then a younger kid opens the door and sees what’s happening, yelling “Oh shit!” A supervisor comes in saying “Nigger” over and over again before telling everyone that Mr Spencer will hear about this incident.

Chapter Six

The white students at Nickel Academy call the torture building the “Ice Cream Factory” for its colorful bruises. The black students, however, don’t think it needs a special name and just call it the White House. When kids get in serious trouble they’re brought to the White House by Earl or Spencer after midnight. That night a brown Chevy arrives for Elwood, Lonnie Black Mike and Corey. They don’t know what happens in there but Desmond told them that you have to stay still once you start punishment because if you struggle with the switch it’ll cut your skin like a knife does.

The White House used to be a simple shed, but now it’s used exclusively for beatings. However, no one would guess that because the building still looks like it did before. Elwood enters with Spencer and two other boys into an empty room where they hear strange mechanical sounds coming from another room. After waiting for a while, Elwood starts counting in his head to make his own beating easier to endure.

The boys bring Black Mike into the room, and Elwood wonders why he was beaten more harshly than the bully. He thinks that perhaps Spencer lost count while beating him, but then worries about there being no system to how they’re punished. Next, Corey is brought in and cries on his way in. When Spencer begins to beat Elwood with a belt, he’s scared because of how much blood there is on the bed from the other boys biting their pillow when they were hit.

A man named Spencer tells Elwood to lie on his stomach, turn the fan on and then whip the backs of his legs. The pain is so bad that he passes out before it’s over. Later, when people ask how many lashes he got, he can’t remember.

Chapter Seven

After Elwood’s beating in the White House, his grandmother comes to visit him and is upset that he seems sick. She asks what he has come down with but is rebuked for asking. Harriet, who had lost her father in jail and her husband while trying to break up a bar fight, has experienced many hard goodbyes. However, she and Mr. Macroni have been working hard on getting justice for Elwood by hiring a white lawyer who is young, kind and optimistic about appealing Elwood’s sentence.

Meanwhile, Elwood spends time in the infirmary after getting beaten up. He is lying on his stomach and taking note of various patterns on the floor. The ward is almost always empty, except for one boy who was there when Elwood first came to the infirmary because he had eaten soap in order to get a break from school (he joked with Elwood about it). Eventually, though, Turner joins him in the infirmary because he has intentionally hurt himself so that he can have some time away from Nickel School. They both joke that Dr. Cooke hardly does anything for patients and just gives them aspirin regardless of what their injuries are like or how severe they are.

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Elwood spends most of his time talking to Turner, who is in charge of the school newspaper. Turner explains that Nickel Academy uses students for labor and makes a lot of money from it. He also says that they print 20,000 bricks every day and sell them around the county.

In the infirmary, Turner tells Elwood that usually beatings are as bad as the ones he received. He adds that some students don’t go to the White House at all, but those who do come back sometimes say they’ve seen other students disappear after being beaten there. When family members ask what happened to these unlucky boys, school officials claim that they ran away from school and their families should stop asking questions because it’s embarrassing for them.

Turner tells Elwood that he shouldn’t have interfered with Corey’s abuse by Lonnie and Black Mike. He believes Corey likes it, and when the two take him into a stall or somewhere else, he gets on his knees for them. When Elwood says this isn’t true, Turner insists that Elwood doesn’t know what people like or dislike and tries to convince him that Nickel is like the external world—except there’s no pretending to be something you’re not at Nickel.

Turner believes that it’s not possible to change Nickel through protests because the students don’t have enough power. Elwood thinks he should try anyway, but Turner insists that this won’t work in a place like Nickel. He then asks why Elwood doesn’t see reality, and emphasizes that if you want to get out of Nickel, you need to be able to do what everyone else does.

Elwood tries to follow his father’s advice, but he is still in pain and can’t sleep. Five days later, Elwood finally leaves the infirmary feeling like a new person. His grandmother comes to visit him just after that and although Elwood wants to tell her what happened, he simply says that things are bad but getting better.

Chapter Eight

Elwood returns to work after being in the infirmary. He asks Mr. Goodall if he can take advanced courses, but is denied again. Elwood realizes that it’s because Spencer heard about his request and punished him for asking something better than what they have now. Then Elwood thinks that Nickel just hates everyone so much that he punishes them at random with demerits, which makes no sense otherwise given how hard it is to get points and graduate early.

Elwood knows that it’s difficult to graduate from Nickel Elementary School. He sets a goal for himself, deciding to earn enough points by June so he can go to college without having to work the summer before his freshman year. If he does this, then it will only be a short setback in his plans if he ends up missing just one year of school because of what happened with his grandmother and her lawyer.

Elwood is assigned a new job, and he’s told to get in the van with Turner. They drive off campus, but Harper tells them that they’re on their way to do community service. He says that Elwood was chosen because of his previous work (with Nickel), and he promises that Elwood can keep quiet about what happens.

Harper knows Nickel well because his mother worked at the school as a secretary before she died of cancer. The students have been through so much already, and Harper feels like people like Elwood are just unlucky; they’ve had bad things happen to them while other people haven’t.

Elwood, Turner and Harper go around the town of Eleanor unloading food to local shops. They are paid by Nickel (the school) but they actually give less than what they receive from the government. The rest is sold in the surrounding area for profit. At the end of their workday, Harper drives Elwood and Turner to a rich board member’s house where they paint a gazebo for free as part of their community service requirement at Nickel (the school). Elwood enjoys this because he has his own car and can visit his girlfriend whenever he wants to. He also gets along well with Harper who treats him like an equal despite being a teacher or staff member.

While Elwood and Turner paint the gazebo, Turner tells Elwood that he was sent to Nickel for a second time. He doesn’t say why he was originally sent there but explains the circumstances surrounding his second punishment. He worked as a pinsetter at a bowling alley where he would fraternize with white customers in an agreeable manner. One night while taking a break, however, he spoke to an old black man who worked in the kitchen; this cook chastised him for being too friendly toward whites and said that Turner didn’t have any self-respect because of it.

Turner says that he was so bothered by what his coworker said that he started to treat the customers differently. In fact, he started making fun of them as they played. This led to an altercation with a white man who yelled at him and called him racial slurs. Turner escaped unharmed, but when he saw the same man’s car parked outside the bowling alley a week later, he threw a cinderblock through its windshield in retaliation for how the man had treated him. The police came for Turner shortly thereafter.

When Elwood and Turner finish their work for the day, Harper picks them up. On the way home, Elwood tries to remember everything he saw that day. He also decides to keep a list of all the things Nickel Academy is doing illegally in his notebook.

Chapter Nine

The school has a tradition of having boxing matches between the white and black students. It’s been fifteen years since the last white student won, so this year’s contender is Griff against Big Chet. The director of the school when it was called Florida Industrial School for Boys in 1942, Trevor Nickel, started that tradition because he was interested in fitness and watched boys showering. This practice has continued into Elwood’s time as director: he picks his “dates” by watching them shower.

In the lead-up to his fight with Big Chet, Elwood’s peers say that he has no chance at winning. One day, though, Turner is napping in a hidden spot when Spencer comes in with Griff and asks him about boxing training. This makes Turner uncomfortable because it seems like an attempt by Spencer to get Griff to lose on purpose so that he can take him out back for punishment. However, Griff doesn’t pick up on this hinting from Spencer and just agrees with whatever the superintendent says until finally Spencer tells him to lose in the third round of the fight or else he will be punished by being taken out back.

Elwood is surprised that Spencer wants Griff to lose the boxing match on purpose. Turner tells him that it would be crazy for Griff not to follow Spencer’s orders, and when Elwood asks if he could take Griff to the White House as punishment, Turner points out two trees with iron rings behind a laundry building. He says sometimes Spencer takes black boys there and chains them up before whipping them senseless.

Elwood asks Turner if he ever brings white boys out back, but Turner tells him that the space is only for black students. If they kill a black student, they simply claim that the boy ran away. Hearing this, Elwood asks what people do when their family members disappear in these situations, but Turner reminds him that not everyone has someone who cares about them in the outside world. This is a point of tension between Elwood and Turner because while Elwood believes that people in society could help him with his situation by changing laws to protect children like himself from being locked up without an explanation or trial, Turner thinks his friend is too optimistic and doesn’t believe there’s anyone who will be able to help them get justice since it’s easier for those running Nickel to just say the kids ran off than it would be to face any consequences for their actions.

Turner brings Elwood to the back of the school because he wants him to see that there are some injustices people choose not to acknowledge. The administration most likely goes to Klan meetings on weekends, and Turner wanted Elwood to know this. However, Elwood remains ignorant about what Nickel Academy is really like, so Turner takes him out back in order for him to see what’s going on behind closed doors.

Two days later, Harper tells Turner and Elwood that Spencer and the board members of Nickel are betting on the outcome of the boxing match. They used to bet casually when Trevor Nickel was in charge, but now it’s a much more serious affair. Everyone bets on black boxers because they’ve always done so.

The boxing championships take place over two nights. Big Chet and Griff win their first matches, which means they’ll be fighting in the final match. The students are excited to see who will win because both boys have been training hard. Director Hardee sits with his wife, whom everyone tries not to stare at since she’s so beautiful that any student caught staring is beaten for it. Sure enough, Big Chet and Griff fight each other in the second round of the competition, but then Elwood wonders if Spencer has forgotten about what he told him before: that he was supposed to lose.

When the fight begins, Griff and Big Chet seem to be evenly matched. In the first rounds, Griff shows no signs of going easy. Elwood is visibly upset by the entire charade because it reminds him of unfair dishwashing races he had as a child at Richmond Hotel. As the fight continues, Turner sees many opportunities for Griff to go down but he won’t back off from his opponent regardless of what happens afterwards. Finally, when time runs out on the last round, the referee declares that Griff has won two out of three rounds and therefore wins overall.

Griff runs across the ring and attacks Spencer. He yells at him that he thought it was only the second round, even though Turner had told him it was the third. Griff is dragged away by some of his black classmates who are cheering for him to win, but he is never seen again after that night. The next day, Earl comes to visit Spencer in his room and they talk about what happened with Griff last night, saying how they feel bad about what happened because they didn’t want things to get out of hand like that.

A man named Griff is hung from two trees in Florida. He was physically restrained, had his wrists broken before he died, and the iron rings from those trees are still embedded there. Fifty years later, they dig him up and discover that he was shackled to those trees while being beaten to death.

Chapter Ten

During Christmas time, the students at Nickel Academy prepare decorations. One student finds a strange green bottle while cleaning a shed and tells his friends about it. The others discuss who would be the best target for feeding horse medicine to, as they have found out that this medicine makes horses vomit if they eat something dangerous or wrong. They come up with various targets but eventually decide on Earl, though none of them will say why he is their final choice.

Jaimie keeps proposing the idea of poisoning Earl to the other boys. Eventually, they agree that it’s a good idea and decide that the annual holiday luncheon is when they’ll do it. However, only Jaimie is serious about the plan; one by one, everyone else backs out of it. “They’ll put us in jail,” Desmond says.

When Turner and Elwood are with Harper, they feel free to talk about running away. They agree that Turner would run south because no one would expect it. He’d take clothes from a clothesline and raid an empty house for supplies. Finally, he wouldn’t take anyone with him since he thinks his peers will slow him down and make him fail.

Harper returns to the school with Elwood and Turner, but he goes straight to the hospital. He learns that Earl is in critical condition and rushes off again. Meanwhile, Elwood and Turner find Desmond outside of the dining hall who says that there was poison in the bottle. The boys discuss their plans when Jaimie appears looking a bit disoriented. He tells them what happened: Earl suddenly stood up from his chair holding his stomach, at which point he sprayed blood all over everyone at the table.

Elwood calls Jaimie crazy, but Jaimie claims that he had nothing to do with Earl’s poisoning. Desmond points out that the can of poison has vanished from his locker, but Jaimie says again that he had nothing to do with it. However, a slight smile passes over Jaimie’s face in brief moments as they discuss the situation and Turner appreciates him because he admires people who lie even though they’re obviously not telling the truth.

If Dr. Cooke finds out about what Jaimie did to Earl, Turner plans to help him escape. However, the boys find that their doctor believed it was due to Earl’s bad health and not because of anything else. As a result, Earl recovers and doesn’t return to Nickel. Instead he is replaced by Hennepin who is even more brutal than Earl was when he was in charge of the ward.

Chapter Eleven

Elwood is a man smoking a cigarette in his apartment. It’s hot and humid, making the city unbearable. Worse yet, there’s a garbage strike that makes it difficult to walk around because of all the trash everywhere. His girlfriend Denise goes out for ice cubes, making her way through the piles of trash on the streets. Elwood thinks about when he first moved to New York City during another garbage strike in 1968. He recalls how he arrived at Port Authority and made his way to a dirty flophouse on 99th Street where nobody wanted to clean up so he did it himself.

Denise brings the ice and massages Elwood’s back. His back is sore because he’s a professional mover. Denise and Elwood met when he was taking night classes at her school to earn his GED. She taught English as a Second Language in the same school at the time, but she turned him down when he asked her out because she was already dating someone else. However, after one month, she called and asked him out herself. Now, Denise complains about the garbage strike because sanitation employees should go back to work while Elwood thinks it’s good for people to see what kind of place they’re really living in by trying his perspective instead for once.

Elwood recently bought a van and decided to start his own moving company. He wants the business to be successful, so he has named it Ace Moving Company. The name is an allusion to his time at Nickel Academy, where he was very good at sports.

Chapter Twelve

There are four ways to get out of Nickel. First, a student can wait for his sentence to run out. Second, a court can intercede, but this is rare because it usually means that someone has bribed the judge. Third, a boy could die in prison and be buried at Boot Hill (where most students who die are buried). The fourth way out is escape; however, this is very difficult since boys have been killed while trying to escape.

Elwood believes he can get out of Nickel. He thinks this after his grandmother comes to visit him, despite her illness. His time in prison has allowed him to trick himself into believing that he is making progress, but the truth is that he has let the institution defeat him and turn him into someone who’s too tired to resist oppression. Meanwhile, his grandmother had been ill for a long time before she was able to visit Elwood in prison. Now she is finally here with him, but her frailty makes it clear that she might not be alive when Elwood gets out of Nickel.

Harriet tells Elwood that his chances of getting out of Nickel are slim. His lawyer ran away with all the money, so he’s stuck there for a while. He apologizes to Elwood, but he insists that it’s okay and says that he just achieved Explorer status. After this visit, however, Elwood thinks about how to get out of Nickel once and for all; he decides on a fifth option: destroying Nickel itself.

Chapter Thirteen

Elwood, a grown man in Manhattan, likes to watch the New York Marathon. He enjoys the camaraderie and energy of the spectacle because he remembers how lonely it felt at Nickel when everyone was facing similar problems. At the New York Marathon, people are happy to cheer each other on and chant positive phrases like “You can do it.”

Elwood runs into an old classmate named Chickie Pete. Elwood can tell that he’s been through some rough times, since he just got out of rehab. They go to a bar and talk about their time at Nickel without ever really addressing the abuse they endured there. Instead, Chickie tells him about other people from Nickel who are doing well for themselves now that they’ve left the school behind, though this doesn’t stop him from quickly downing two beers.

Elwood remembers a friend from his old neighborhood, Chickie Pete. He used to be an incredible trumpet player, but he says those days are behind him. Elwood has heard similar stories from other people who were treated harshly when they were young and forced to endure hard work in the fields of their youth. Since leaving Nickel, Chickie has been in the army, worked odd jobs and gotten into trouble with the law. Most recently, he got into a bar fight that led to court-ordered rehab at an alcohol treatment center. When Elwood asks Chickie what he does for work now that he’s out of rehab, Elwood is embarrassed to tell him that he owns his own moving company on Lenox Avenue because it makes him sound like a successful businessman rather than someone who works hard every day trying to get by as best as possible while keeping up appearances for friends and family members back home in Nickel City.

Chickie asks Elwood when he left Nickel, but Elwood doesn’t remember. However, instead of telling the truth that he escaped from there, he tells him that his sentence was up and he was released. In reality, this is a lie because it’s something that has been said over and over again to make people believe in his story. Now though, Chickie Pete doesn’t know about the escape since nobody else knows either.

“Hey, hey, what happened to that kid you used to hang around with all the time?” asks Chickie Pete. Elwood pretends he doesn’t know who Chickie is talking about and then proceeds to ignore him. While Elwood thinks about his past, he sees an ambulance whip by outside. As its colors flash across the mirror behind the bar, Elwood sees himself haloed in a red light that distinguishes him as someone who doesn’t belong in the free world. Suddenly, he feels like everyone can see this light around him and think of Nickel Boys as people who will forever be running from their terrible pasts because they have no place among society’s elite.

Elwood is depressed that his friend died and even more so because he’s still alive. He decides to leave the bar, but before he does, Chickie Pete returns from the bathroom. Elwood gets angry at this man for being alive when his friend isn’t anymore. Before leaving the bar, Elwood half-heartedly promises to give him a call if he needs a mover for work. On his way home, Elwood thinks about how much he had liked having an escape story circulating through Nickel Bar that no one else knew about except himself and Chickie Pete. The fact that even Chickie doesn’t know this story depresses him further as it makes him feel like there’s nothing good in his life anymore. As soon as Elwood arrives home, he rips up the napkin with Chickie’s phone number on it and throws it away without looking back or thinking of what might have been possible if things were different between them two men who could’ve become friends instead of enemies due to circumstances beyond their control.

Chapter Fourteen

Elwood has just recently started working at Nickel Academy, and while he’s there, the director of the school tells him that inspectors from the state are coming. The reason for this is because Nickel Academy frequently gets in trouble with the state. However, it’s merely a routine inspection. Nevertheless, everyone on campus stops all classes two days before so people can focus on fixing up everything around campus—the plumbing and floors especially. Turner and Elwood continue Community Service during this time by cleaning out a politician’s basement in Eleanor. During their work together, Elwood tells Turner his plan to overthrow Nickel Academy

Elwood used to think of Dr. King’s ideas as vague concepts that don’t apply directly to his life, but now he realizes they do because they’re helping him overcome the abuse he’s been receiving from Spencer. He decides to adopt an immense capacity for suffering so that he won’t fear punishment and will be able to tell government inspectors about Nickel selling supplies illegally. Turner asks why Elwood is doing this, and warns him that Spencer will kill him if he finds out what Elwood is planning to do.

Elwood insists that it is a mistake to simply go through life avoiding problems. He tells Turner that he has to confront his problems head-on, even if it’s hard. Still, Turner refuses to participate in the plan and leaves Elwood with all of the work on his own.

Elwood is nervous about the upcoming inspection. He’s going to give a note to one of the inspectors, but he doesn’t know how. When they’re close enough, he thinks about giving it to them, but then decides against it because Hardee doesn’t want them to know that students often leave campus on their own time. Elwood and Turner continue working on refurbishing the football bleachers as a way of distracting themselves from thinking too much about the upcoming inspection.

At lunch, Elwood curses himself for failing to deliver the letter. However, he resolves to try it again. He’ll do this by delivering the letter in a more secluded area of the school grounds. Although he knows that taking such risks is dangerous, he doesn’t let that stop him from trying his best to bring about change at the school. After all, he’s already survived one beating and can probably survive another if necessary. So after lunch on Monday afternoon, Elwood and some other boys set out once again for football bleachers but are stopped by Harper who tells them not to go there because inspectors won’t be visiting today so they don’t need their presence there anymore (and asks Elwood specifically). Consequently, Harper wants Elwood to tell another teacher that everyone can relax now since no one will come visit him today (since teachers were supposed to meet with inspectors on Mondays).

Knowing that he won’t be able to give the letter to the inspectors, Elwood asks Harper if he can stay. He tells him that it’s not necessary for them to talk formally all of the time and calls him by his first name. After correcting Elwood, Harper says that they should do what they’re told and everything will return to normal after the inspectors leave. After Harper leaves, Elwood stands there defeated until Turner comes over and offers to take care of things himself because “fuck it.”

Elwood delivers Harper’s message to Turner, who puts the letter in a copy of the school newspaper and gives it to inspectors. The next day, everything goes smoothly and authorities don’t come zooming onto campus. Later that night, however, Spencer and Hennepin take Elwood back to the White House.

Chapter Fifteen

Elwood is a man who lives in New York City alone. He has been there for years and he doesn’t seem to like it very much. However, one day, he meets Millie and they decide to get married. She seems very nice but she doesn’t know about his history at Nickel Academy, which was a school where Elwood used to live with other black people. One night, Millie invites him out on a date at the Hamilton Heights restaurant because they haven’t gone out together in a long time. Elwood isn’t too keen on going since that area of town is mostly white people now (the reason why it’s called Hamilton Heights) and he thinks that it might not be safe for him to go there since many black people were forced out of their homes decades ago and are only just now moving back into the neighborhood again after gentrification occurred over the last few years.

Elwood is waiting for Millie outside the restaurant. He remembers his time working as a mover in Harlem, which made him fear dying alone. This experience also made him think about Nickel Academy, where he met Millie at a fundraiser. Elwood decides to buy flowers for her and thinks that this must be what a “normal” husband would do. However, Elwood still thinks about Nickel on a daily basis and wonders how it has prevented him from having a normal life like everyone else’s. Just as he goes to buy flowers, he sees Millie approaching him affectionately calling him handsome.

Chapter Sixteen

The state of Florida banned the practice of solitary confinement in schools years ago, but Spencer still punishes Elwood by putting him in solitary confinement after beating him up. However, because he doesn’t want to know what effect Elwood’s letter will have on his situation, the superintendent beats him more lightly than before. He gives Hennepin a switch and tells him to whip Elwood until Spencer says it’s enough.

Elwood sits in solitary confinement, trying to remember Dr. King’s words of optimism and strength. He recites the line, “Throw us in jail and we will still love you.” In this dark place, Elwood feels his own power slipping away as he remembers the days when he waited at a hotel for a black customer who never came.

One night, Elwood’s cell door opens. He prepares himself for another beating and thinks that Spencer might have decided to kill him after three weeks of keeping him in his cell without food or water. However, Turner tells him that he is finally going to be killed the next day because now there won’t be any consequences. In this way, Elwood is prepared for death as he walks out into the night with Turner’s help.

The Nickel staff members are playing poker in a separate building, so Turner and Elwood manage to slink off the grounds undetected. When Elwood asks why Turner chose to come for him, Turner explains that he heard through the grapevine that Spencer and Hardee are planning on taking him “out back” the next night. Stopping for a moment, Elwood asks Turner why he’s coming too, and Turner says that they can take care of both problems at once: if they get caught escaping from The Nickel together, then it will be obvious who ratted them out. When Elwood reminds him that he said before never to take anyone with him while escaping from The Nickel because it would slow things down too much—and also because people might think twice about helping someone else escape after seeing how stupid their partner is—Turner replies by saying that nobody would expect two dummies like them to try something like this; therefore no one could possibly suspect anything until it was already done.

Turner brings Elwood to a house he knows is empty, where they steal two bicycles. They ride all night long and when the sun rises, more cars overtake them. To Turner’s surprise, Elwood keeps up quite well considering that he has been in solitary confinement for three weeks. Even though they’re far from Nickel, a staff van approaches them just as they begin to climb a hill. It is the Community Service van and they can’t outrun it so they ditch their bikes and jump over a fence into farmland.

Turner yells at Elwood to run faster through the tall grass. Harper and Hennepin jump out of the van with shotguns, but they’re too slow to catch up with Turner and Elwood. The boys are now running toward a stand of trees in an attempt to escape from their captors. They hear shots fired by both men, but none hit them. Turner then looks back one more time and sees that it’s Harper who shoots at them first; he misses his shot because he stops running while aiming for the kill. Now, though, Hennepin is ready to shoot again and pulls the trigger before Turner can look away this time; however, just as he fires his gun at them, Elwood stumbles forward into the grass after being shot by Hennepin’s bullet—and now it’s Turner who runs onward until jumping over a fence into another field beyond which there are even more trees hiding him from sight.

Epilogue

Turner couldn’t figure out the electronic kiosks at the airport, so he went to a counter and told them his name was Elwood Curtis. He had escaped from Nickel two weeks prior, after meeting a waitress in a diner who asked him his name. Since then, Turner has used that name as an homage to his friend.

News of Elwood’s death reached the local press, but it portrayed him as a runaway. After hiding in railroad yards for several nights, Turner took a train north and made his way to New York City. Then, in 1970, he returned to Florida and obtained a copy of Elwood’s birth certificate then applied for a Social Security card several years later. He has been Elwood Curtis ever since—until now. Last night he gave Millie two articles about Nickel’s graveyards and told her this is where he lived as a teenager. Going on, he told her his entire story spending hours crying with her trying to explain the details

Elwood Turner has been living as Elwood for decades. He does this because he wants to live a life that would make his friend proud, who died in the Vietnam War. As Turner tells Millie about himself, she begins to understand why he acts so angry sometimes and why he’s not fond of authority figures or police officers. She realizes they have something in common: They’ve both experienced discrimination in their lives.

Millie is like Turner in that she faces prejudice on a daily basis. Indeed, she goes through humiliation every day, which reminds her of growing up in Virginia as a black woman. She tries to ignore those things because if she didn’t lose her mind. Still, it bothers her that even though he says his name is Jack Turner, it’s not his real name and there are parts of his story that he hasn’t told Millie yet.

Turner is going back to Nickel for the first time. He’s unsure whether or not he’ll be arrested for having escaped, and isn’t sure what will happen when he gets there. However, despite his uncertainty, Turner has decided to return because it’s important that he does so. This decision makes him think about Elwood’s strong beliefs about morality and how those beliefs ultimately led to his death.

Shane Turner has found out from Paul Nickel that he buried dead kids to avoid investigations when he was the cook at The Castle. He also learned that after Elwood went crazy, his grandma died a year later, making him think there’s a connection between his and Elwood’s deaths. Because of this, he is going back home with plans to unveil what they found in those graves and put an end to all these years of living inside a dark cloud. A group of “White House boys” are also going to claim they’re sorry and want someone (a relative?) for an apology by building some sort of memorial site devoted to their abuse victims at the place where all this happened — which will be perfectly understandable because otherwise “they’d never let go.”

The White House boys are all white, so Turner has come to speak out for the black boys. He’s determined to find Elwood’s grave and tell his friend about his life. Moreover, he wants to talk about what happened to him and Elwood.

Turner books a hotel room at The Radisson in Tallahassee. It’s an old building that has been renovated, but the ground floors have remained somewhat the same. Turner goes to dinner and sits wherever he wants. He reads the menu, learning about how this is a Tallahassee landmark formerly known as The Richmond Hotel where Elwood sat in the kitchen reading comic books while waiting for black customers to enter into the dining area.

The Nickel Boys Book Summary, by Colson Whitehead
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