The book opens with the discovery of bodies in a secret graveyard on the north side of the Nickel campus. Nickel had once been a reform school, but has now been closed for three years. Elwood Curtis is a former student, now a grown man. When the secret graves are discovered, he knows he will need to go back there.
Elwood Curtis is a young boy living in Talahassee (in the Frenchtown neighborhood) in 1962. He gets straight As and hopes to someday get to go to Fun Town, an amusement park that’s currently only open to whites.
Growing up, Elwood spends a lot of time at the Richmond Hotel, where his mother and grandmother had worked. Elwood often hangs out in the kitchen. He would challenge the busboys to dish drying competitions. Elwood always won. He wins a box of encyclopedias that a traveling salesman left behind at the hotel, but it turns out that apart from one volume, they’re all empty. He wonders if the other busboys knew it and let him win it. It wasn’t until later that he considered whether they’d let him win the competitions all along.
Elwood expects that any day now the world will be desegregated after Brown vs Board of Education passes (no more school segregation). He plays a game where he bets whether there’ll be brown faces in the dining room of The Richmond. He keeps expecting that any day now he’ll see some, but it never happens during his time there.
But his grandmother, Harriet, knows it won’t be that simple (“Jim Crow ain’t going to just slink off,” she said. “His wicked self.”) Elwood grows up knowing about Frenchtown’s history as part of the black civil rights movement and is eager to be a part of it.
As Elwood gets older, his steady and hardworking nature becomes obvious. The white businessmen around town often offer him work. When Elwood is 13, he starts working for Mr. Marconi at Marconi’s Tobacco & Cigars. He sees Mrs. Thomas at the story occasionally, who had been best friends with his mother, Evelyn Curtis. Evelyn and Percy Curtis, his father, took off when he was six and didn’t come back.
One day, two boys from town that he’s known his whole life, Larry and Willie, steal some candy from the store. While Mr. Marconi’s policy is to ignore any “sticky fingers” from kids (he doesn’t want to chase away the boys, their friends or parents from coming back), Elwood intervenes. On the way home, the boys beat him up. Even Elwood realizes that giving the boys trouble didn’t make pragmatic sense for him.
Elwood is very principled and idealistic to the point of seeming like he has no “goddamn sense.” He listens to Dr. King and believes that having the dignity of doing what’s right will give him inalienable strength.
When he gets older, he attends Lincoln High School. They get their textbooks secondhand from the white high school, which often include racial insults inscribed throughout for them to find.
Mr. Hill is his history teacher when Elwood is a junior. He notices Elwood’s interest in the civil rights struggle. Finally, in Spring of ’63, Elwood wants to participate in the picket of the whites-only Florida Theater. Harriet, who has seen many people pay the price for speaking out, tries to discourage him from participating. He attends the sit-in. She finds out and spanks him with a belt, but it has still awakened in him a sense of purpose and a need to be part of the movement.
Under the pseudonym of Archer Montgomery, he writes letters about race to the local newspaper.
One day, Mr. Hill enters the shop asking if Elwood would be interested in taking classes at a local colored college? The classes are free temporarily and open to high-achieving high school students. Elwood signs up.
To get to the college, he hitches a ride with a man named Rodney. On the way, they get pulled over by cops. The car they’re in is a stolen vehicle.
Elwood gets sent to Nickel Academy. (He was convicted of helping to steal the car.) He is picked up by a policeman, along with Franklin T. and Bill Y. As they arrive, Elwood feels hopeful. It looks nice, nothing like he imagined.
Inside, they meet with Superintendent Maynard Spencer. He explains to them that there are four ranks here (Grub, Explorer, then Pioneer, and finally, Ace) and they can move up depending on their behavior. They start as Grubs, and when they get to Ace, then they can go home.
Elwood is then separated from the other two (white) boys, into the colored section. One the campuses, there are different houses named after different presidents. Elwood is assigned to Cleveland. Blakeley is Cleveland’s house father. He explains to Elwood that the boys here help with the upkeep, help with growing crops and get educated.
At night, he hears a roaring noise and someone comments that “someone’s going out for ice cream.” (Note: as readers, we don’t know what that means yet.)
Elwood meets Turner, who is from Houston, and Desmond. He also meets Griff, Lonnie and Big Mike. There’s also a Mexican boy named Jaimie who has been shuttling between both campuses since they can’t decide if he belongs with the white kids or the black kids.
Elwood gets the lay of the land. Between the colored and white campuses there’s a small skinny, unkempt building which looks like a storage shed.
Elwood is disappointed when it’s time for class. The material is too basic and the teacher Mr. Goodall doesn’t really care. Elwood asks for harder material, but to no avail. He wonders what the schooling on the white campus is like. The main goal at Nickel is to work for merits so you can move up the ranks and go home. Elwood is determined to do it twice as fast as most people do it.
However, Elwood intervenes when he sees some bullies (Lonnie and Big Mike) bullying a smaller boy, Corey. A fight ensues, and they all get sent to Superintendent Spencer.
That night, Elwood, Corey and the bullies get pulled out of bed and sent to the “ice cream factory” (hence the previous comment about “going out for ice cream”), which is the small shed-looking building Elwood previously saw. It’s where boys get sent to be beaten for bad behavior. It’s called that because of the colored bruises that they end up with. The “White House” is the official name.
In the room is a large industrial fan which made the roaring noise Elwood heard. The leather strap used to beat the boys is called Black Beauty. The walls have spatters of blood. If you made noise, you got more lashes.
Harriet recalls that her father had died in jail. He’d been accused by a white lady of not getting out of her way on the sidewalk (“Bumptious Contact”). The police claimed that he hung himself in the cell before he could be heard by a judge.
Harriet’s husband, Monty, was killed when he got intervened to protect a dishwasher at a restaurant when some colored guys and white locals get into a fight there.
And Percy and her daughter Evelyn left for California after Percy could not longer stand being in Tallahassee after returning from the war. In the military there were opportunities for colored advancement, but he did not see similar opportunities when he returned, even with the GI bill (“What was the point of a no-interest loan when a white bank won’t let you step inside?).
That left her and Elwood, who was now at Nickel.
Back at Nickel, Elwood is sent to the hospital after his severe beating. There, Nurse Wilma is kind to the white boys, but not the black boys. Turner soon shows up in the hospital ward as well after intentionally consuming some soap powder to make himself sick. He says he wants a day off working. He does the same thing the second day. Turner makes fun of the doctor, which makes Elwood laugh.
He tells Elwood that the Nickel Academy was originally called the Florida Industrial School for Boys. It was renamed in 1949 honor of Trevor Nickel who had taken over and reformed the school.
Elwood knows his beating was particularly bad, but Turner tells Elwood he was lucky. He says that some boys go to the White House and don’t return. Instead, the school tells the parents that the boy ran away. Turner tells Elwood to learn to look the other way. He explains that if you call people out, you’re also in effect calling out everyone else that lets these things happen too.
Harriet visits Elwood, but Elwood doesn’t have the heart to tell her what happened.
Elwood finds a box of books as they clean out a basement, and he takes them. Harriet believes that people get punished for “acting above your station.” He wonders if maybe him asking for more difficult classwork is what earned him a more vicious beating, as if they were trying to put him in his place.
Elwood is now determined to listen to Turner and get himself out (“Let the world be a mob—Elwood will walk through it.”) Turner recommends Elwood for an assignment that he’s on. It’s called “Community Service”. Their job is to go around town with a man named Harper to help with selling supplies that had been allocated to Nickel Academy, like food or school supplies. For Elwood, it’s a break from being on the Nickel campus and a taste of freedom.
Elwood and Turner talk about their pasts. This is Turner’s second stint in Nickel. He used to work at a bowling alley, where he would joke around and heckle the white players good-naturedly. Then, an older black man there chastised him for putting on a show, saying he had no self-respect. Turner felt embarrassed and his heckling took a mean turn. After a guy tried to fight him, the next time Turner saw the guy’s car he threw a brick at it, which landed him in Nickel.
When Elwood is assigned to Community Service permanently, he starts keeping a record of their deliveries.
There’s an annual boxing match at Nickel between one white boy and one black boy. Griff is a bully, but he is going to represent the black boys in the match. For the last 15 years, the black boys have won.
Turner tells Elwood about how Trevor Nickel started the boxing matches. Nickel thought staying fit was important and would watch boys shower to “monitor their progress.” Dr. Campbell, the school psychologist, is known too for “monitoring” the white boys in the shower and taking them out for “dates”.
Turner overhears Superintendent Spencer telling Griff to throw the race (lose on purpose) in the third round or else he’ll get sent “out back“. Turner and Elwood conclude that Spencer must be betting on the fight. “Out back” is a set of two oak trees where they shackle you up, whip you to death and mark you down as an escapee.
The matches take place over two nights, with the first night serving as the qualifying round. Big Chet is the white boy that wins and will represent the white boys. Griff, predictably, is chosen among the black boys.
The next day, the two fight. In the third round, Griff gets confused. He thinks they’re still on the second round. He doesn’t let up and wins the match, screaming “I thought it was the second!” as he cries in fear. He’s taken “out back”, his body to be dug up 50 years later.
The annual Christmas Fair is coming up. It’s serves as a fundraiser for the school. The boys on each campus work on the decoration and displays.
Some of the boys talk about playing a prank. Desmond has found a can of horse medicine, stuff that makes horses throw up in case they eat something they shouldn’t. He wants to put it in a staffer’s drink. Jaimie wants to give it to a staffer named Earl for unknown reasons during the Holiday Luncheon. The boys ultimately chicken out and abandon the plan.
While on “Community Service”, Harper leaves Elwood and Turner alone for a bit and they take a walk around the block. Turner and Elwood talk about if they were to escape, how they’d do it. Turner tells Elwood that the most important part thing is to go alone, take no one with you.
They pass by an ice cream store. Turner is reminded of his aunt’s boyfriend. Turner’s dad left when he was three. His mother, Dorothy, drank herself to death sometime after that, so he was taken in by his Aunt Mavis. Her boyfriend, Ishmael, moved in when he was 11. Ishmael beat Mavis regularly and eventually Turner tried to intervene. Afterwards, Ishmael took him for ice cream to buy him off, so Turner still hates the stuff. Turner later ran away from Mavis’s place.
On the way back, they hear that Earl is in the hospital. Turner and Elwood see the blood in the dining hall, and Desmond says he didn’t do it. Jaimie says he didn’t do it either, though Turner knows he’s lying.
Earl lives, and the doctor blames his sickness on his poor health. The boys go to watch the Christmas display.
There’s a quick flash forward to Elwood as a man living in New York with his partner, Denise. It’s the summer of 1968, it’s hot and the city workers are on strike so there is garbage everywhere. Elwood has back problems, but he works as a mover. He recently started his own moving company and bought a used truck, so he can do shifts for it on the side. It’s called Ace Moving. It wasn’t until six months after he chose the name that he realized it was derived from his stint at Nickel.
Back to Elwood’s time at Nickel, there’s four ways to get out: Serve the time (become an Ace or age out by turning 18), court intervention (magic), death and escape.
Clayton Smith is a famous Nickel escapee from 1952. His house father was Freddie Rich, who occasionally picked boys out for “dates” to Lovers’ Lane (the basement of the white schoolhouse where school staff would presumably prey on the boys). After a routine visit to Lovers’ Lane, Clayton decided to make a break for it. His plan was to find his sister Bell who lived on the outskirts of Gainesville.
After four days of walking, hiding, crawling and inching his way away from Nickel, he was starving. He stole some clothes and tried to hitch a ride. He ended up in the car of a Mr. Simmons, a middle-aged white man. The man made small talk and then drove Clayton right back to Nickel, of which he was a member of the board. Clayton ended up in the secret graveyard of Nickel Academy.
Harriet visits Elwood twice a month. This time she tells him that the lawyer she’d hired has run off with her money and the extra hundred dollars that Mr. Marconi had thrown in to help with Elwood’s appeal.
Elwood has been keeping is head down and has just been promoted to Explorer. He’d stopped fighting the institution. But that night, Elwood decides there’s a fifth way out: “Get rid of Nickel.”
Another flash forward to Elwood living in New York. It’s 1988 now. It’s November and Elwood has been out watching the marathon. As the crowd disperses, he’s stopped by Chickie Pete, who he knows from Nickel. They grab a drink at a bar. Chickie joined the army after Nickel, but developed a drinking problem after that. They run through a list of the guys they knew though they’ve all got their problems. Elwood notes to himself how the place messed them all up so they were “unfit for straight life.”
Ace Moving now has employees, a fleet of trucks and he recently signed a 10-year lease.
Elwood is surprised that Chickie doesn’t know how he got out of Nickel. Elwood escaped, though he doesn’t tell Chickie that. When Chickie asks about the “kid you used to hang around with”, Elwood pretends not to know who he’s referring to and soon says goodbye. Chickie asks him to give him a call if he has work for him before Elwood leaves.
Infrequently, reports of embezzlement or physical abuse prompt state inspections at Nickel. Director Hardee’s old fraterity brother gives him a heads up that Nickel is getting a surprise inspection. The boys are sent out with buckets of paint to get the place in order. Leaks are fixed, and the boiler that was delivery two years ago is installed.
Harper gets a request from Edward Childs, a Nickel donor, to clear out his basement, and he sends Elwood and Turner. They’re set up with beds in the basement while they get the work done. It used to serve as the quarters where Mr. Child’s father housed indentured servants, before the practice of leasing parolees was outlawed.
They come across a stack of newspapers, and Elwood is reminded of an article he once read by Dr. King. He thinks about his words which are no longer abstract to him (“We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you.”) and considers it to be an impossible thing, the idea of loving those that had caused their suffering.
Elwood tells Turner about the records of their Community Service that he’s been keeping for the past four months. He says he’s going to give it to the inspectors when they come. Turner tells him that if he does that, Elwood will be taken “out back” and he’ll be taken along with him.
Elwood had twice previously written anonymously to the Chicago Defender about the conditions at Nickel, but never heard back.
The day of the inspection, Elwood is determined, though turner has been avoiding him since the day in the basement. Three inspectors show up, who Elwood nicknames Jackie Gleason, Mayberry, and JFK, based on their appearances. Elwood tries to find an opportunity to hand off his envelope unseen, but can’t seem to make it happen. Then, Harper sends him out to the fields to find Mr. Gladwell, and Elwood knows he’ll never get a chance to give his notes to the inspectors.
Turner overhears and tells Elwood he’ll do it, even though he disapproves. Later, Turner tells him he snuck it into one of the inspectors’ newspapers. That night, Elwood wakes up to flashlights in his face and is dragged out to the White House.
Another flash forward. It’s now sometime in the 2000’s (the book references American Idol). Elwood is meeting his wife, Millie, for a date night. He gets there first. He sees a local paper in a trash can and is reminded that he needs to tell Millie he doesn’t want to be in the article that she suggested him for. The article is profiling a bunch of entrepreneurs, but he doesn’t want to do it.
Ace recently moved into a new office. He has a secretary now and is in the process of picking out a new health plan for the employees.
He recognizes an old building where he had once done a job. The old lady had died alone. He imagines if he died like that his last though would be of Nickel. He feels grateful, then, to have Millie. He has a sudden urge to go buy her some flowers, but then she shows up.
Spencer is nervous about the fallout of the letter will be, so Elwood gets beaten, but not as badly as the first time. After his beating, Elwood is put into one of the dark cells. These were originally storage closets, but they were converted into solitary confinement units. The walls are covered with hieroglyphic-like remnants of things previous inhabitants had etched into walls, which then were painted over.
He’s given a bucket for a toilet and one meal per day. There’s no light except through a mesh opening at the top of the door. One day Spencer comes in and kicks him around a bit more and then leaves. Alone in the dark, competing thoughts fill Elwood’s mind. There’s Dr. King’s words entreating him to love and trust, even against reason. And then there’s the lessons that life has taught him to love no one and trust no one.
Elwood thinks about what he had really been searching for when he scoured the dining hall at Richmond for brown faces. He had been looking for a kindred spirit (“For others to claim him as kin, those who saw the same future approaching, slow as it may be and overfond of back roads and secret hardscrabble paths, attuned to the deeper music in the speeches and hand-painted signs of protest.”)
Suddenly, Turner shows up and unlocks the bolt. He tells him they’re planning on taking him “out back” (murdering him) tomorrow. They need to leave immediately. Elwood mentions Turner’s warning to never taking someone with you to escape. Turner says “You’re dumb, and I’m stupid.”
The boys sneak their way out. The find bikes and ride for a long time. Then, a van appears behind him. It’s a Community Service van. The boys get off the bikes and run towards a pasture. Harper and Hennepin are behind them with shotguns. Harper shoots Elwood, and Turner keeps running.
Flash forward to where the book begins. Turner is on a flight to Tallahassee after the news about the secret graves at Nickel has broken in the news.
Two weeks after Turner escaped, he started using Elwood’s name, and he kept using it ever since.
The day before he left, he told Millie about being in Nickel. Before, he’d only told her that he was in juvie. He also finally tells her his real name. It’s Jack Turner. He explains that Elwood was his friend. He cries into her lap. He decides to go back to Tallahassee because all the boys speaking up about Nickel are white, and he needs to tell Elwood’s story as well.
In Tallahassee, after he checks into his hotel, Turner goes to get something to eat. On the menu, it includes a paragraph about the restaurant’s history. It was formerly the Richmond Hotel.