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The Nickel Boys

The Nickel Boys Summary


Here you will find a The Nickel Boys summary (Colson Whitehead's book).
We begin with a summary of the entire book, and then you can read each individual chapter's summary by visiting the links on the "Chapters" section.

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Last Updated: Monday 1 Jan, 2024

The Nickel Boys Summary Overview

In the introduction, we are introduced to Elwood Curtis, a New York City resident who once attended the Nickel Academy, a reform school in Florida that is currently being dismantled. When he learns about the discovery of a hidden cemetery on the school grounds, he feels compelled to revisit the institution and share his experiences. As a teen in 1962, Elwood lived in Tallahassee, Florida and was deeply influenced by the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. he heard on records. These speeches educated him about the Civil Rights Movement. Raised by his stern grandmother, he had to deal with betrayal by the staff at the hotel where she worked. Despite being a competent and smart individual, his high ideals land him in trouble and he ends up at the Nickel Academy due to a misunderstanding. At Nickel Academy, Elwood learns the hard truth that the institution is not for education but a cover for horrific activities. Despite attempting to stay out of trouble, he lands himself in a brutal situation after standing up against bullying. He recovers in the infirmary where his best friend counsels him to avoid conflicts. However, Elwood remains convinced that people will always do the right thing when faced with injustice. His return to the academy's life involves participation in dubious activities. When a student boxing match ends in the brutal death of a participant, Elwood decides to document all he observes in a notebook. In his adult years, Elwood is now a successful businessman. Despite his achievements, he still reflects on the damage the Nickel Academy inflicted on him and fellow students. He realizes the impact the academy had on his life, breaking him down and challenging his beliefs. When told of an impending state inspection, Elwood plans to expose the academy's corruption. However, his plan results in a severe beating. Decades later, he reconciles with his past and decides to testify at a hearing about the atrocities witnessed and suffered at the academy. The story ultimately reveals that he adopted the identity of his best friend who was killed during an escape attempt and his real name is Jack Turner. His horrifying experiences at the academy bring him a sense of closure and a commitment from his wife to help him heal.


The narrative begins with an adult named Elwood Curtis, a former "Nickel Boy" residing in New York City. His past at the Nickel Academy, a reform school in Florida, is a topic he avoids. Despite not maintaining relationships with other alumni or visiting the school since its closure five years ago, the news of a "secret graveyard" uncovered by university archaeology students compels him to revisit his past and share his own experience.

chapter 1

In the winter of 1962, Elwood gets a record of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s speeches as a Christmas gift, which he constantly listens to. His strict grandmother, Harriet, who brings him up, ensures he doesn't listen to popular tunes and monitors him closely. Elwood excels in his studies. He's spent his afternoons since he was nine in the Richmond Hotel's kitchen, the workplace of his grandmother, mother, and great-grandmother. Initially, older kitchen workers tease him with activities such as dish-drying competitions. However, they later exploit his naive and kind personality. When they find a set of encyclopedias left by a salesman, they manipulate Elwood to win a dish-drying contest, promising the books as prize. They let him carry the heavy boxes home on public transport, hiding the fact that only one book has printed pages. Feeling betrayed and upset, Elwood decides not to return to the hotel.

chapter 2

Following the Brown v. Board of Education verdict, Elwood always expects to see the effects of desegregation. He lives in Frenchtown, a Black district in Tallahassee, Florida, with his less optimistic grandmother, Harriet. At 13, Elwood starts working at Marconi’s Tobacco & Cigars, a corner shop managed by Mr. Marconi, an Italian. Elwood assists in the store while also learning about the Civil Rights Movement from Life magazine. Mr. Marconi generally lets young customers get away with shoplifting sweets, but one day Elwood insists two local boys return their stolen candy. Later, they retaliate by assaulting him and giving him a black eye. Harriet and Mr. Marconi can't comprehend Elwood's "lack of sense" and want him to stay clear of trouble. However, Elwood, inspired by Dr. King's speeches, believes ignoring wrong acts undermines his dignity and self-respect. His bond with Martin Luther King, Jr. strengthens when he learns that Dr. King had to explain to his six-year-old daughter Yolanda why she couldn't visit Fun Town amusement park due to being Black – the same age Elwood was left by his parents.

chapter 3

During his penultimate year at school, Elwood befriends a new educator, Mr. Hill, who had been involved in the Civil Rights Movement in Florida. He gives Elwood a copy of James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son due to his keen interest in the subject. Their textbooks, previously owned by white students filled with racial slurs, are cleaned up by the students using markers, under Mr. Hill's guidance. In the following summer, Elwood gets involved in the local movie theater integration protests led by college students. He meets other Lincoln High students through Mr. Hill who also partakes in the demonstrations. Despite his grandmother’s disapproval and consequent punishment, Elwood begins to fantasize about his future college life. Adding to the excitement of the summer, Elwood gets an opportunity from Mr. Hill to join a program offering free college classes while still a senior. His grandma is overjoyed, and Mr. Marconi presents him with a fountain pen. The college, located seven miles south of Tallahassee, can only be reached by hitching a ride for Elwood. So, Elwood hitches a ride with Rodney, a Black man. However, their journey is interrupted by the police, who reveal that Rodney had stolen the car.

chapter 4

Elwood is sentenced to the Nickel Academy reform school by a judge and driven there in the back of a state car, handcuffed. He's joined by two white boys also destined for Nickel – one for truancy, the other for vandalizing a pharmacy. The officer labels Elwood as a car thief. Nickel's campus-like appearance with its football field momentarily fools Elwood into thinking it's more a school than a jail. Superintendent Maynard Spencer, a large white man, introduces them to the academy in a short speech while ominously jangling his keys. In the uniform distribution, Elwood is pointed towards the worn-out 'colored' clothes. While the white boys are led to their dormitories downhill, Elwood's assigned dormitory, Cleveland, is uphill, guided by his black housemaster, Blakely. Blakely advises Elwood to master the manual labor skills taught at Nickel for future societal reintegration. When Elwood expresses his desire to join advanced classes, Blakely informs him about the work-school rotation. Elwood's new room houses several bunk beds and despite his attempts to perceive Nickel as a school, not a jail, he can't help but shed tears. A loud, eerie mechanical noise outside just before sleep further adds to his anxiety.

chapter 5

Elwood gets acquainted with several boys at Nickel, Turner being the one he grows closest to. He's shown around by Desmond, a fellow inmate from an adjacent bunk. Desmond escorts him to a classroom where the subpar teaching and outdated resources shock Elwood. He requests more challenging materials from the teacher. Later that day, he is assigned to the grounds crew where another teen, Jaimie, guides him around. Due to his Mexican roots, Jaimie's placement at the facility fluctuates, as the management can't determine if he is Black or white. Elwood is cautioned against the mysterious White House, a white building at the campus center. Elwood ventures into the unsanitary rec room in Cleveland dormitory. Desmond advises him to steer clear of trouble, obey orders, and aim for an early departure by earning merits and moving up the ranks from Grub to Explorer, then Pioneer, and finally Ace. Recalling a speech from a Martin Luther King, Jr., record, Elwood pledges to earn his way out of Nickel swiftly. But he witnesses Corey, a small boy, being harassed by two other boys, Lonnie and Black Mike, from breakfast that morning. When Elwood intervenes, he is punched by Black Mike. A white houseman records all four boys' names, indicating it will be brought to Mr. Spencer's attention.

chapter 6

In the early hours, Elwood, Corey, Lonnie, and Black Mike are ushered from their dormitory to the so-called 'Ice Cream Factory'— the White House— by Mr. Spencer and houseman Earl. Its innocuous nickname, given by white boys, stems from the varied hues of bruises endured there. Each boy endures a brutal whipping at the hands of Spencer using “Black Beauty”—a severe leather strap affixed to a wooden handle. The number of lashes isn't fixed, and no explanation is sought for the bathroom incident. Elwood's beating is so relentless, he faints. An industrial fan, the source of the mechanical sounds from the previous night, muffles their screams.

chapter 7

Harriet, Elwood’s grandmother, recalls the unjust events that led to the deaths of her husband and father. She thinks of her daughter Evelyn, Elwood's neglectful mother, and Evelyn’s husband Percy, who grew embittered due to the racism he encountered after his military service in World War II. The couple deserted their son one night. The most heart-wrenching farewell Harriet ever had was when Elwood was sent to Nickel. She is lied to, being told Elwood is sick during her visit. In reality, Elwood is recovering from a beating at Nickel’s hospital. He spends two weeks on his belly, healing his back and leg wounds. Turner uses soap powder to mimic sickness and enters the infirmary, enabling him to spend a few days with Elwood. They bond over radio shows and humor, and Turner imparts his worldview. He encourages Elwood to protect himself from the cruelty and prejudice of others. Elwood, on the other hand, remains hopeful of societal reform through the Civil Rights Movement, believing people will rectify their behavior when faced with injustice. Upon recovery, Elwood feels a sense of shame at the sight of his scars. He conceals the truth about his beating from his visiting grandmother.

chapter 8

Elwood resumes his life at Nickel Academy, quickly understanding there's no logic in the merit system or punishments, and no clear path to early release. At Turner's suggestion, Elwood joins Harper, a young white man, for "Community Service". The three of them spend a day in Eleanor, where they distribute goods intended for Nickel's Black boys to local businessmen, who reciprocate with cash filled envelopes. The money is then handed over to Superintendent Spencer and his boss, Director Hardee. After their tasks, Harper leaves Elwood and Turner at Mrs. Davis's house, the wife of the fire chief and a Nickel board member. While Harper leaves to meet his girlfriend, Elwood and Turner are left to paint the Davis's gazebo. Turner discloses to Elwood the reason for his second admission to Nickel. He used to work at a bowling alley, setting up pins and entertaining customers for tips. However, following a stern conversation about self-respect with a fellow Black worker, Turner's behavior became cold towards customers. This led to a heated chase around the alley by a white boy, and Turner, in retaliation, smashed the boy's car window with a cinderblock. This act landed Turner back in Nickel. Meanwhile, Elwood starts maintaining a journal, documenting the names, places, and items they delivered during their service.

chapter 9

Nickel Academy witnesses an annual boxing contest amongst the top Black and White students. This year, Griff, a violent bully representing the Black students, is to fight. Despite his ruthless behavior, his victory would symbolize a win for the entire Black community. Turner, hiding in the warehouse, eavesdrops on Superintendent Spencer instructing Griff to intentionally lose the fight in the third round. Elwood questions the consequences if Griff refuses to lose, and Turner points out two large oak trees with iron rings, indicating that defying Spencer’s orders could lead to a brutal death. School supporters and Director Hardee attend the match and place bets. Griff competes against Big Chet, a strong White opponent. The match is tough, but Griff does not go down in the third round. Upon winning, he shouts out to Spencer about his misunderstanding of the round count. That night, Griff is brutally killed “out back”. The students believe that Griff triumphed intentionally and managed to escape. His remains, however, are found five decades later in an unmarked grave.

chapter 10

The boys at Nickel gear up for the much-awaited Christmas Festival, drawing spectators from far and wide for the festive lights and displays. The white boys shoulder the more significant tasks and handle the lighting, while the Black boys are tasked with painting and repairing displays. Meanwhile, Desmond discovers a green can of what they are told is equine medicine. Desmond, Jaimie, Turner, and Elwood contemplate using it to spike a houseman's drink at the staff's Christmas meal. On the day of the event, Elwood and Turner are left alone downtown while on Community Service. As they stroll around, Turner reveals his escape plan if ever he decides to flee-- to head alone towards the unexpected southeast. Upon returning to Nickel, they are informed that Earl has been hospitalized, suffering from blood vomit. The boys suspect Jaimie of poisoning Earl, an accusation he denies. Earl survives, with Spencer attributing his sickness to his frail health, sparing the boys from further scrutiny. That evening, Turner and Elwood enjoy the sight of the Christmas lights, feeling a sense of accomplishment.

chapter 11

By 1975, Elwood has settled in New York City. The sanitation workers are on strike on a sultry Fourth of July, causing a buildup of trash on the streets. His girlfriend, Denise, steps out to purchase ice for their drinks. Elwood recalls his arrival in the city during a notable garbage strike seven years prior. After trying out various jobs, he now works for a removal company, despite it causing him back issues. He met Denise while he was pursuing his GED and she was an English tutor for immigrants. They spend their evening watching The Defiant Ones, a film about a prison break, before retiring to bed. Elwood hopes to buy a used vehicle the following day to establish his own removal business. He later recognizes that he named the business Ace Moving, as Ace was the pinnacle status at Nickel, marking a "graduation" when achieved.

chapter 12

The story illustrates four escape routes from Nickel. Firstly, by completion of a sentence, advancement to Ace, or reaching 18 years of age. Secondly, the court stepping in to overturn a sentence. Thirdly, death, either from natural causes, Nickel's harshness, negligence or staff atrocities. Lastly, by fleeing. Clayton Smith's tale is narrated, who attempted escape after enduring sexual abuse from houseman Freddie Rich. Trying to reach his sister in Gainesville, Florida, he was unfortunate to be picked up by a former Eleanor mayor who was on Nickel's board of directors. He was returned to Nickel, beaten to death and buried in a hidden cemetery. Elwood had quit resisting until he was visited by his frail and sorrowful grandmother, Harriet. She informs him about their lawyer absconding with the $200 she and Mr. Marconi had given for Elwood's early release. Despite telling Harriet he's fine, Elwood decides after a sleepless night that he'll expose Nickel's corruption and get the school shut down. He's prepared to battle for justice again.

chapter 13

During the 80s, Elwood is spotted by Chickie Pete, an old acquaintance from Nickel, while watching the New York Marathon. Unlike his usual avoidance of other Nickel alumni, Elwood decides to enjoy a beer with Chickie Pete. He discovers that Chickie Pete is fresh out of rehab, jobless, and homeless. Elwood mentions his business, Ace Moving, but keeps his success a secret. He struggles with the loneliness of his life and despairs at the damage suffered by Nickel boys that prevents them from leading a "normal" life. Chickie Pete requests a job and leaves his contact details on a napkin for Elwood. However, he admits he has no memory of Elwood's escape, which disappoints Elwood, who had hoped his daring departure would make him a Nickel legend. Elwood discards the napkin during his taxi ride home.

chapter 14

At Nickel, the lads dedicate two days to repair work in anticipation of a sudden state supervision visit. These inspections have historically followed newspaper accusations of misconduct or fraud, but minor steps were only ever implemented after. This review is routine. Elwood and Turner are busy cleaning the basement of a Nickel donor when Elwood reveals his secret: he's been documenting the Community Service deliveries and plans to expose Nickel's abuses to an inspector. Despite Turner's pleas to reconsider, Elwood remains committed, drawing strength from Martin Luther King, Jr.'s teachings. He remembers his unanswered letters to the newspapers about Nickel's corruption, questioning if they ever reached their destination or were simply drowned in a sea of similar letters from across the South. Elwood keeps faith in the inherent goodness of people, trusting that they'll act against injustice when faced with it. He draws inspiration from the victories of Rosa Parks, sit-ins, and school integration. He feels that even if those in power aren't inclined towards justice, they'll uphold the law. He trusts the inspectors to perform their duty. On inspection day, Elwood plans to hand over his documents to an inspector. However, his plans are foiled as he’s dispatched to the farm fields post-lunch. Turner steps in to present the notebook to an inspector. Elwood is skeptical but Turner later confirms he handed it to a JFK-lookalike inspector by wrapping it in a school newspaper and passing it through his car window. Following this, there's a two-day silence. Then Spencer and his new assistant, Hennepin, drag Elwood off to the White House for a beating in the dead of night.

chapter 15

In the modern era, Elwood spends time at a restaurant in Harlem's stylish neighborhood, Hamilton Heights, awaiting his wife Millie, to whom he's been married for a decade. Elwood's business, Ace Moving, prospers, boasting a secretary and multiple trucks. He recalls a time from the 1970s when he was in that same building, transporting the possessions of a lonely, deceased old woman. This experience triggered a fear in Elwood of facing a solitary death, linking such a tragic end to the scars from his time at Nickel.

chapter 16

Post the brutal attack at the White House, Elwood is confined to a top-secret, dim room on the third storey of Cleveland dormitory. Despite the illegality of solitary confinement, it's a long-standing tradition at Nickel. Elwood endures this isolation for three weeks, experiencing another beating by Spencer and Hennepin. He reflects on the challenging teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr., about loving one's enemies, which leads him to feel disillusioned, isolated, and rejected. Unexpectedly, Turner appears with Elwood’s apparel and they both make their escape. They head to the town, using bikes they acquired during a community service project. They cycle tirelessly till the following day to reach Tallahassee. Just outside the town, they hear a vehicle approaching, realizing it's the Nickel Community Service van. In panic, they abandon their bikes and sprint across a field with Hennepin and Harper pursuing them, armed with rifles. Hennepin shoots but misses. Turner then witnesses Harper fire a shot that fatally strikes Elwood, who falls with arms wide open. Turner continues his run, deserting the now motionless Elwood.


Adopting the name of Elwood Curtis two weeks after his escape from Nickel, Turner is preparing for a flight to Tallahassee, Florida in 2014. He's set to return to Nickel to share his and Elwood's experiences. On the eve of his journey, Turner reveals to his wife Millie, his dark past at Nickel, sentenced there as a teen and adopting Elwood's identity after the latter's murder. Engulfed in an emotional conversation, they spend the night discussing the atrocities he faced, offering comfort to each other. Turner then reveals that his actual first name is Jack, a name only his mother used for him. Upon reaching Tallahassee, Turner contemplates the narratives of his former classmates scheduled to speak at the press conference. As the only Black student expected to testify, his arrival is unknown to others. He checks into a Radisson hotel, previously known as the Richmond, where he orders a hamburger. Unaware, Turner sits in the same hotel where Elwood used to spend time during his childhood, longing for the time when a Black person would dine there.

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