As the Civil Rights movement begins to reach the black enclave of Frenchtown in segregated Tallahassee, Elwood Curtis takes the words of Dr. Martin Luther King to heart: He is “as good as anyone.” Abandoned by his parents, but kept on the straight and narrow by his grandmother, Elwood is about to enroll in the local black college. But for a black boy in the Jim Crow South of the early 1960s, one innocent mistake is enough to destroy the future. Elwood is sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy, whose mission statement says it provides “physical, intellectual and moral training” so the delinquent boys in their charge can become “honorable and honest men.”
In reality, the Nickel Academy is a grotesque chamber of horrors where the sadistic staff beats and sexually abuses the students, corrupt officials and locals steal food and supplies, and any boy who resists is likely to disappear “out back.” Stunned to find himself in such a vicious environment, Elwood tries to hold onto Dr. King’s ringing assertion “Throw us in jail and we will still love you.” His friend Turner thinks Elwood is worse than naive, that the world is crooked, and that the only way to survive is to scheme and avoid trouble.
The tension between Elwood’s ideals and Turner’s skepticism leads to a decision whose repercussions will echo down the decades. Formed in the crucible of the evils Jim Crow wrought, the boys’ fates will be determined by what they endured at the Nickel Academy.
Based on the real story of a reform school in Florida that operated for one hundred and eleven years and warped the lives of thousands of children, The Nickel Boys is a devastating, driven narrative that showcases a great American novelist writing at the height of his powers.
Read an excerpt below, or download it here.
Elwood received the best gift of his life on Christmas Day 1962, even if the ideas it put it in his head were his undoing. Martin Luther King At Zion Hill was the only album he owned and it never left the turntable. His grandmother Hattie had a few gospel records, which she only played when the world discovered a new mean way to work on her, and Elwood wasn’t allowed to listen to the Motown groups or popular songs like that on account of their licentious nature. The rest of his presents that year were clothes – a new red sweater, socks – and he certainly wore those out, but nothing endured such good and constant use as the record. Every scratch and pop it gathered over the months was a mark of his enlightenment, tracking each time he entered into a new understanding of the Reverend’s words. The crackle of truth.
They didn’t have a TV set but Dr. King’s speeches were such a vivid chronicle — containing all that the Negro had been and all that he would be — that the record was almost as good as television. Maybe even better, grander, like the towering screen at the Davis Drive-In, which he’d been to twice. Elwood saw it all: Africans persecuted by the white sin of slavery, Negroes humiliated and kept low by segregation, and that luminous image to come, when all those places closed to his race were opened.
The speeches had been recorded all over, Detroit and Charlotte and Montgomery, connecting Elwood to the rights struggle across the country. One speech even made him feel like a member of the King family. Every kid had heard of Fun Town, been there or envied someone who had. In the third cut on Side A, Dr. King spoke of how his daughter longed to visit the amusement park on Stewart Ave in Atlanta. Yolanda begged her parents whenever she spotted the big sign from the expressway or the commercials came on TV. Dr. King had to tell her in his low, sad rumble about the segregation system that kept colored boys and girls on the other side of the fence. Explain the misguided thinking of some whites — not all whites, but enough whites – that gave it force and meaning. He counseled his daughter to resist the lure of hatred and bitterness and assured her that “Even though you can’t go to Fun Town, you are as good as anyone who gets to go to Fun Town.”
That was Elwood — good as anyone. A hundred miles south of Atlanta, in Tallahassee. Sometimes he saw a Fun Town commercial while visiting his cousins in Georgia. Lurching rides and happy music, chipper white kids lining up for the Wild Mouse Roller Coaster, Dick’s Mini Golf. Strap into the Atomic Rocket for a Trip to the Moon. A perfect report card guaranteed free admission, the commercials said, if your teacher stamped a red mark on it. Elwood got all A’s and kept his stack of evidence for the day they opened Fun Town to all God’s children, as Dr. King promised. “I’ll get in free every day for a month, easy,” he told his grandmother, lying on the front room rug and tracing a threadbare patch with his thumb.
His grandmother Hattie had rescued the rug from the alley behind the Richmond Hotel after the last renovation. The bureau in her room, the tiny table next to Elwood’s bed, and three lamps were also Richmond castoffs. Hattie had worked at the hotel since she was fourteen, when she joined her mother on the cleaning staff. Once Elwood entered high school, the hotel manager Mr. Parker made it clear he’d hire him as a porter whenever he wanted, smart kid like him, and the white man was disappointed when the boy began working at Marconi’s Tobacco & Cigars. Mr. Parker was always kind to the family, even after he had to fire Elwood’s mother for stealing.
Elwood liked the Richmond and he liked Mr. Parker, but adding a fourth generation to the hotel’s accounts made him uneasy in a way he found difficult to describe. Even before the encyclopedias. When he was younger, he sat on a crate in the hotel kitchen after school, reading comic books and Hardy Boys while his grandmother straightened and scrubbed upstairs. With both his parents gone, she preferred to have her nine-year-old grandson nearby instead of alone in the house. Seeing Elwood with the kitchen men made her think those afternoons were a kind of school in their own right, that it was good for him to be around men. The cooks and waiters took the boy for a mascot, playing hide and seek with him and peddling creaky wisdom on various topics: the white man’s ways, how to treat a good-time gal, strategies for hiding money around the house. Elwood didn’t understand what the older men talked about most of the time, but he nodded gamely before returning to his adventure stories.
After rushes, Elwood sometimes challenged the dishwashers to plate-drying races and they made a good-natured show of being disappointed by his superior skills. They liked seeing his smile and his odd delight at each win. Then the staff turned over. The new downtown hotels poached personnel, cooks came and went, a few of the waiters didn’t return after the kitchen reopened from the flood damage. With the change in staff, Elwood’s races changed from endearing novelty to mean-spirited hustle; the latest dishwashers were tipped off that the grandson of one the cleaning girls did your work for you if told him it was a game, keep on the lookout. Who was this serious boy who loitered around while the rest of them busted their asses, getting little pats on the head from Mr. Parker like he was a damn puppy, nose in a comic book like he hadn’t a care? The new men in the kitchen had different kinds of lessons to impart to a young mind. Stuff they’d learned about the world. Elwood remained unaware that the premise of the competition had changed. When he issued a challenge, everybody in the kitchen tried not to smirk.
Elwood was twelve when the encyclopedias appeared. One of the busboys dragged a stack of boxes into the kitchen and called for a powwow. Elwood squeezed in – it was a set of encyclopedias that a traveling salesman had left behind in one of the rooms upstairs. There were legends about the valuables that rich white people left in their rooms, but it was rare that this kind of plunder made it down to their domain. Barney the cook opened the top box and held up the leather-bound volume of Fisher’s Universal Encyclopedia, Aa-Be. He handed it to Elwood, who was surprised at how heavy it was, a brick with pages edged in red. The boy flipped through, squinting at the tiny words –Aegean, Argonaut, Archimedes – and had a picture of himself on the front room couch copying words he liked. Words that looked interesting on the page or that sounded interesting in his imagined pronunciations.
Cory the busboy offered up his find – he didn’t know how to read and had no immediate plans to learn. Elwood made his bid. Given the personality of kitchen, it was hard to think of anyone else who’d want the encyclopedias. Then Pete, one of the new dishwashers, said he’d race him for it.
Pete was a gawky Texan who’d started working two months prior. He was hired to bus tables, but after a few incidents they moved him to the kitchen. He looked over his shoulder when he worked, as if worried about being watched, and didn’t talk much, although his gravelly laughter made the other men in kitchen direct their jokes toward him over time. Pete wiped his hands on his pants and said, “We got time before the dinner service, if you’re up for it.”
The kitchen made a proper contest of it. The biggest yet. A stopwatch was produced and handed to Len, the gray-haired waiter who’d worked at the Hotel for over twenty years. He was meticulous about his black serving uniform, and maintained that he was always the best-dressed man in the dining room, putting the white patrons to shame. With his attention to detail, he’d make a dedicated referee. Two fifty-plate stacks were arranged, after a proper soaking supervised by Elwood and Pete. The two busboys acted as seconds for this duel, ready to hand over dry replacement rags when requested. A lookout stood at the kitchen door in case a manager happened by.
While not prone to bravado, Elwood had never lost a dish-drying contest in four years, and wore his confidence on his face. Pete had a concentrated air. Elwood didn’t perceive the Texan as a threat, having out-dried the man in prior competitions. Pete was, in general, a good loser.
Len counted down from ten, and they began. Elwood stuck to the method he’d perfected over the years, mechanistic and gentle. He’d never let a wet plate slip or chipped one by setting it on the counter too quickly. As the kitchen men cheered them on, Pete’s mounting stack of dried plates unnerved Elwood. The Texan had an edge on him, displaying new reserves. The on-lookers made astonished noises. Elwood hurried, chasing after the image of the encyclopedias in their front room.
Len said, “Stop!”
Elwood won by one plate. The men hollered and laughed and traded glances whose meaning Elwood would interpret later.
Harold, one of the busboys, slapped Elwood on the back. “You were made to wash dishes, slick.” The kitchen laughed.
Elwood returned volume Aa to Be to its box. It was a fancy reward.
“You earned it,” Peter said. “I hope you get a lot of use out of them.”
Elwood asked the housekeeping manager to tell his grandmother he’d see her at home. He couldn’t wait to see the look on her face when she saw the encyclopedia on their bookshelves, elegant and distinguished. He dragged the boxes to the bus stop on Tennessee, hunched. To see him from across the street – the serious young lad heaving his freight of the world’s knowledge – was to witness a scene that might have been illustrated by Norman Rockwell, if Elwood had had white skin.
At home, he cleared Hardy Boys and Tom Swifts from the green bookcase in the front room and unpacked the boxes. He paused with Ga, curious to see how the smart men at the Fisher company handled galaxy. The pages were blank – all of them. Every volume in the first box was blank except for the one he’d seen in the kitchen. He opened the other two boxes, his face getting hot. All the books were empty.
When his grandmother came home, she shook her head and told him maybe they were defective, or dummy copies the salesman showed to customers as samples, so they could see how a full set would look in their homes. That night in bed his thoughts ticked and hummed like a contraption. It occurred to him that the busboy, that all the men in the kitchen, had known the books were empty. That they had put on a show.
He kept the encyclopedias in the bookcase anyway. They looked impressive, even when the humidity peeled back the covers. The leather was fake, too.
The next afternoon in the kitchen was his last. Everyone paid too much attention to his face. Cory tested him with “How’d you like those books?” and waited for a reaction. Over by the sink Peter had a smile that looked as if it had been hacked into his jaw with a knife. They knew. His grandmother agreed that he was old enough to stay in the house by himself. Through high school, he went back and forth over the matter of whether the dishwashers had let him win all along. He’d been so proud of his ability, dumb and simple as it was. He never settled on one conclusion until he got to Nickel, which made the truth of the contests unavoidable.
Saying goodbye to the kitchen meant saying goodbye to his separate game, the one he kept private: Whenever the dining room door swung open, he bet on if there were Negro patrons out there. According to the Supreme Court after all, the dining room of the Richmond Hotel was desegregated. The night the radio announced the judges’ ruling, his grandmother shrieked as if someone had tossed hot soup in her lap. She caught herself and straightened her dress. “Jim Crow ain’t going to just slink off,” she said. “His wicked self.”
The morning after the decision, the sun rose and everything looked the same. Elwood asked his grandmother when Negroes were going to start staying at the Richmond and she said it’s one thing to tell someone to do a thing and another for them to do it. She listed some of his behavior as proof and Elwood nodded: Maybe so. Sooner or later, though, the door would swing wide to reveal a brown face — a dapper businessman in Tallahassee for business or a fancy lady in town to see the sights — enjoying the fine-smelling fare the cooks put out. He was sure of it. The game began when he was nine, and three years later the only colored people he saw in the dining room carried plates or drinks or a mop. He never stopped playing, up until his afternoons at the Richmond ended. Whether his opponent in this game was his own foolishness, or the mulish constancy of the world, was unclear.
Mr. Parker was not the only one who saw a worthy employee in Elwood. White men were always extending offers of work to Elwood, recognizing his industrious nature and steady character, or at least recognizing that he carried himself differently than other colored boys his age and taking this for industry. Mr. Marconi, the proprietor of the tobacco shop on Macomb Street, had watched Elwood since he was a baby, squealing in a noisy carriage that was half rust. Elwood’s mother was a slim woman with dark, tired eyes who never moved to quiet her child. She’d buy armfuls of movie magazines and vanish into the street, Elwood howling all the way.
Mr. Marconi left his perch by the register as seldom as possible. Squat and perspiring, with a low pompadour and a thin black mustache, he was inevitably disheveled by evening. The atmosphere at the front of the store was stringent with his hair tonic and he left an aromatic trail on hot afternoons. From his chair, Mr. Marconi observed Elwood grow older and lean toward his own sun, veering away from the neighborhood boys, who carried-on and roughhoused in the aisles and slipped red hots into their dungarees when they thought Mr. Marconi wasn’t looking. He saw everything, said nothing.
Elwood belonged to the second generation of his Frenchtown customers. Mr. Marconi set up his shingle a few months after the army base opened up in ’42. Negro soldiers took the bus down from Camp Gordon Johnson or Mabry Airfield, raised hell in Frenchtown all weekend, then slumped back to train for war. He had relatives who opened businesses downtown and thrived, but a white man savvy to the economics of segregation could turn a real buck. Marconi’s was a few doors down from the Bluebell Hotel. The Tip Top Bar and Marybelle’s Pool Hall were around the corner. He did a reliable trade in various tobaccos and tins of Romeos prophylactics.
Once the war ended, he moved the cigars to the back of the store, repainted the walls white, and added magazine racks, penny candy, and a soda cooler, which did much to improve the place’s reputation. He hired help. He didn’t need an employee, but his wife liked telling people that he had an employee, and he imagined it made the store more approachable to a genteel segment of black Frenchtown.
Elwood was thirteen when Vincent, the tobacco shop’s longtime stock boy, signed up for the army. Vincent hadn’t been the most attentive employee, but he was prompt and well-groomed, two qualities that Mr. Marconi valued in others if not himself. On Vincent’s last day, Elwood dawdled at the comics rack, as he did most afternoons. He had a curious habit where he read every comic front to back before he bought it, and he bought every one he touched. Mr. Marconi asked why go through all that if he was going to buy them whether they were good or not, and Elwood said, “Just making sure.” The shopkeeper asked him if he needed a job. Elwood closed the copy of Journey Into Mystery and said he’d have to ask his grandmother.
Hattie had a long list of rules of what was acceptable and what was not and sometimes the only way for Elwood to know how it all worked was to make a mistake. He waited until after dinner, once they’d finished the fried catfish and the sour greens and his grandmother rose to clear. In this case, she held no hidden reservations, despite the fact that her Uncle Abe had smoked cigars and look what happened to him, despite Macomb Street’s history as a laboratory of vice, and despite the fact she’d turned her mistreatment by an Italian sales clerk decades before into a cherished grudge. “They’re probably not related,” she said, wiping her hands. “Or if they are, distant cousins.”
She let Elwood work at the store after school and on weekends, taking half his paycheck at the end of the week for the household and half for college. He’d mentioned going to college the summer prior, casually, with no inkling of the momentousness of his words. Brown v. the Board of Education was an unlikely turn, but one of Hattie’s family aspiring to higher education was an actual miracle. Any misgivings over the tobacco shop collapsed before such a notion.
Elwood tidied the newspapers and comic books in the wire racks, wiped dust off the less popular sweets, and made sure that the cigar boxes were arranged according to Marconi’s theories about packaging and how it excited “the happy part of the human brain.” He still hung around the comics, reading them gingerly as if handling dynamite, but the news magazines exerted a gravity. He fell under the luxurious sway of Life Magazine. A big white truck dropped off a stack of Life every Thursday – Elwood came to learn the sound of its brakes. Once he sorted the returns and displayed the new arrivals, he hunkered on the step ladder to follow the magazine’s latest excursions into unreckoned corners of America.
He knew Frenchtown’s piece of the Negro’s struggle, where his neighborhood ended and white law took over. Life’s photo essays conveyed him to the front lines, to bus boycotts in Baton Rouge, to counter sit-ins in Greensboro, where young people not much older than him took up the movement. They were beaten with metal bars, blasted by fire hoses, spat on by white housewives with angry faces, and frozen by the camera in tableaus of noble resistance. The tiny details were a wonder: how the young men’s ties remained straight black arrows in the whirl of violence, how the curves of the young women’s perfect hairdos floated against the squares of their protest signs. Glamorous somehow, even when the blood flowed down their faces. Young knights taking the fight to dragons. Elwood was slight-shouldered, skinny as a pigeon, and he worried about the safety of his glasses, which were expensive and in his dreams broken in two by night sticks, tire irons, or baseball bats, but he wanted to enlist. He had no choice.
Flipping pages during lulls. Elwood’s shifts at Marconi’s provided models for the man he wished to become, and separated him from the type of Frenchtown boy he was not. His grandmother had long steered him from hanging out with the local kids, whom she regarded as shiftless, clambering into rambunction. The tobacco shop, like the hotel kitchen, was a safe preserve. Hattie raised him strict, everyone knew, and the other parents on their stretch of Brevard Street helped keep Elwood apart by holding him up as an example. When the boys he used to play Cowboys & Indians with chased him down the street every once in a while or threw rocks at him, it was less out of mischief than resentment.
People from his block stopped in Marconi’s all the time, and his worlds overlapped. One afternoon, the bell above the door jangled and Mrs. Thomas walked in.
“Hello, Mrs. Thomas,” Elwood said. “There’s some cold orange in there.”
“I think I just might, El,” she said. A connoisseur of the latest styles, Mrs. Thomas was dressed this afternoon in a homemade yellow polka-dot dress she’d copied from a magazine profile of Audrey Hepburn. She was quite aware that few women in the neighborhood could have worn it with such confidence and when she stood still it was hard to escape the suspicion that she was posing, waiting for the pop of flashbulbs.
Mrs. Thomas had been Evelyn Curtis’s best friend growing up. One of Elwood’s earliest memories was of sitting on his mother’s lap on a hot day while they played gin. He squirmed to see his mother’s cards and she told him not to fuss, it was too hot out. When she got up to visit the outhouse, Mrs. Thomas snuck him sips of her orange soda. His orange tongue gave them away and Evelyn half-heartedly scolded them while they giggled. Elwood kept that day close.
Mrs. Thomas opened her purse to pay for her two sodas and this week’s Jet. “You keeping up with that schoolwork?”
“I don’t work the boy too hard,” Mr. Marconi said.
“Mmm,” Mrs. Thomas said. Her tone was suspect. Frenchtown ladies remembered the tobacco store from its disreputable days and considered the Italian an accomplice to domestic miseries. “You keep doing what you’re supposed to, El.” She took her change and Elwood watched her leave. His mother had left both of them; it was possible she sent her friend postcards from this or that place, even if she forgot to write him. One day Mrs. Thomas might share some news.
Mr. Marconi carried Jet, of course, and Ebony. Elwood got him to pick up The Crisis and The Chicago Defender, and other black newspapers. His grandmother and her friends subscribed, and he thought it strange that the store didn’t sell them.
“You’re right,” Mr. Marconi said. He pinched his lip. “I think we used to carry it. I don’t know what happened.”
“Great,” Elwood said.
Long after Mr. Marconi had stopped minding his regulars’ buying habits, Elwood remembered what brought each person into the store. His predecessor Vincent had occasionally livened up the place with a dirty joke but it couldn’t be said that he had initiative. Elwood possessed it in spades, reminding Mr. Marconi which tobacco vendor had shorted them on the last delivery and which candy to quit restocking. Mr. Marconi struggled to tell the colored ladies of Frenchtown apart – all of them wore a scowl they when saw him — and Elwood made a competent ambassador. He’d stare at the boy when he was lost in his magazines and try to figure what made him tick. His grandmother was firm, that was clear. The boy was intelligent and hardworking and a credit to his race. But Elwood could be thick-witted when it came to the simplest things. He didn’t know when to stand back and let things be. Like the business with the black eye.
Kids swiped candy, it didn’t matter what color their skin. Mr. Marconi himself, in his untethered youth, had engineered all sorts of foolishness. You lose a percentage here and there, but that was in the overhead – kids steal a candy bar today but they and their friends spend their money in the store for years. Them and their parents. Chase them out into the street over some little thing, word gets around, especially in a neighborhood like this where everybody’s in everybody’s business, and then the parents stop coming in because they’re embarrassed. Letting the kids steal was almost an investment, the way he looked at it.
Elwood drifted to a different perspective over his time in the store. Before he worked at Marconi’s, his friends gloated over their candy heists, cackling and blowing insolent pink bubbles of Bazooka once they got a good distance from the store. Elwood didn’t join in but he’d never had feelings on it. When Mr. Marconi hired him, his boss explained his attitude towards sticky fingers, along with where they kept the mop and what days to expect the big deliveries. Over the months, Elwood saw sweets disappear into boys’ pockets. Boys he knew. Maybe with a wink to Elwood if they caught his eye. For a year, Elwood said nothing. But the day Larry and Willie grabbed the lemon candies when Mr. Marconi bent behind the counter, he couldn’t restrain himself.
“Put it back.”
The boys stiffened. Larry and Willie had known Elwood their whole lives. Played marbles and tag with him when they were small, although that ended when Larry started a fire in the vacant lot on Dade State and Willie got left back twice. Harriet struck them from the list of allowable companions. Their three families went back in Frenchtown for generations. Larry’s grandmother was in a church group with Harriet, and Willie’s father had been a childhood buddy of Elwood’s father Percy. They shipped off to the army together. Willie’s father spent every day on his porch in his wheelchair, smoking a pipe, and he waved whenever Elwood passed.
“Put it back,” Elwood said.
Mr. Marconi tilted his head: That’s enough. The boys returned the candy and left the store, smoldering.
They knew Elwood’s route. Sometimes jeered at him for being a goody two shoes when he biked past Larry’s window on his way home. That night they jumped him. It was just getting dark and the smell of magnolias mingled with the tang of fried pork. They slammed him and his bike into the new asphalt the county had laid down that winter. The boys tore his sweater, threw his glasses into the street. As they beat him, Larry asked Elwood if he had any damned sense; Willie declared that he needed to be taught a lesson, and proceeded to do so. Elwood got a few licks in here and there, not much to talk about. He didn’t cry. When he came upon two little kids fighting on his block, Elwood was the kind to intervene and cool things down. Now he was getting his. An old man from across the street broke it up and asked Elwood if he wanted to clean himself or have a glass of water. Elwood declined.
The chain on his bike was popped and he walked it home. Harriet didn’t press him when she asked about his eye. He shook his head. By morning the livid bump underneath was a bubble of blood.
Larry had a point, Elwood had to admit: from time to time it appeared that he had no goddamned sense. He couldn’t explain it, even to himself, until Zion Hill lent him a language. We must believe in our souls that we are somebody, that we are significant, that we are worthful, and we must walk the street of life with this sense of dignity and this sense of somebody-ness. The record went round and round, like an argument that always returned to its unassailable premise, and Dr. King’s words filled the front room of the shotgun house. Elwood bent to a code – Dr. King gave that code shape, articulation, and meaning. There are big forces that want keep the Negro down, like Jim Crow, and there are small forces that want to keep you down, like other people, and in the face all those things, the big ones and the smaller ones, you have to stand up straight and maintain your sense of who you are. The encyclopedias are empty. There are people who trick you and deliver emptiness with a smile, while others rob you of your self-respect. You need to remember who you are.
A sense of dignity. The way the man said it, crackle and all: an inalienable strength. Even when consequences lay in wait on dark street corners on your way home. They beat him up and tore his clothes and didn’t understand why he wanted to protect a white man. How to tell them that their transgressions against Mr. Marconi were insults to Elwood himself, whether it was a sucker candy or a comic book? Not because any attack on his brother was an attack on himself, like they said in church, but because for him to do nothing was to undermine his own dignity. No matter that Mr. Marconi had told him he didn’t care, no matter that Elwood had never said a word to his friends when they stole in his presence. It didn’t make no sense until it made the only sense.
That was Elwood – good as anyone. On the day he was arrested, just before the deputy appeared, an advertisement for Fun Town came on the radio. He hummed along. He remembered that Yolanda King was six years old when her father told her the truth about the amusement park and the white order that kept her outside the fence looking in. Always looking in to that other world. Elwood was six when his parents took off and he thought, that’s another thing tying him to her, because that’s when he woke to the world.