Let me start by saying this is an excellent book. This is a very sad book but it is an excellent book.
The Nickel Boys is the story of Elwood Curtis, an African American teenager with immense potential whose life and future take an unexpected turn. In 1962 Elwood’s grandmother gives him a copy of Martin Luther King at Zion Hall. The Civil Rights messages he hears in the album stick with him throughout his life and he tries too hard to live consistently with Dr. King’s messages.
Elwood is a serious student and an industrious young man, living with his grandmother in Tallahassee Florida after being abandoned by his parents. His grandmother works at the Richmond Hotel and Elwood spends his days there after school in the hotel kitchen. “Whenever the dining room door swung open, he bet on whether there were Negro patrons out there.” Elwood stopped going to the Richmond when he was 12 years old and never got to see a black patron in the dining room. As a 13 year old, he takes a job at Marconi’s tobacco shop. Mr. Marconi understands that neighborhood kids will pilfer candy and comic books from time to time and that this is just part of the cost of doing business. But Elwood does not understand this and after calling out some neighborhood kids for theft he is beaten. And yet the lesson that he should learn there does not stick.
Elwood attends Lincoln High School, where the students use the second hand textbooks used by the neighboring white high school in prior years. Sadly, the white students leave unpleasant messages in the textbooks for the Lincoln students to see. Elwood is befriended by his junior year teacher, Mr. Hill who gets him involved in the Civil Rights movement. He also arranges for Elwood to take college classes at Melvin Griggs Technical College. The classes are free and Elwood and his grandmother are excited that he will get this jump on college.
Elwood hitches a ride to the college and this is when things immediately go downhill. I will not tell you exactly what happens but Elwood gets sentenced to reform school and is sent to Nickel Academy. Maynard Spencer, an exceptionally cruel man, is the Superintendent at the “Academy”.
The school is divided into campuses for black students and white students. The school portion is itself perfunctory and many of the students cannot read or write. The facility is known for its White House, a shed with an industrial fan where students are taken to be beaten with a leather whip by Spencer and his helpers. When Elwood attempts to help another student he believes is being abused, he is taken in the middle of the night to the White House where he is beaten to the brink of death. Afterwards he ends up in the Nickel hospital for weeks.
Throughout the story we learn of various cruelties at Nickel, including being taken “out back”, where the student is chained to a tree, beaten to death and buried in an unmarked grave. Elwood and his friend Turner are assigned to “Community Service”, where they work with a facility employee to sell school supplies of all sorts to the free community and pocket the profit. As you might imagine, this does not sit well with Elwood and trouble ensues.
Ultimately Turner and Elwood escape and Elwood becomes a successful entrepreneur whose past never stops haunting him. The school is closed and Texas A&M students begin to discover all its horrors. There is a website for former students and a reunion upcoming. Elwood, who is living in New York City at the time of the reunion decides to go to Tallahassee for the event.
The book has some twists and turns that I do not want to disclose and the ending is simply brilliant. The story is based on the true story of a reform school called the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida. You can read about Dozier here and here. The book comes out in July and you can reserve it at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.