Elwood Curtis was an idealistic straight-A high school student preparing to take college classes when he was wrongly convicted of stealing a car. He was sent to Nickel Academy - a Florida reform school, which proved to be a place of arbitrary cruelty - especially for black boys like Elwood. Physical, sexual, and mental abuse were daily occurrences. When the staff caught bullies were beating up a boy in the bathroom, the victim and the one who tried to stop the fight were punished more severely than the bullies. One boy was beaten and murdered by the staff for disobeying their order to throw a boxing match.
At Nickel, Elwood befriended Turner, a cynical orphan from the streets. The two became friends, despite their differing world outlooks and opinions on how best to survive inside Nickel and out in the Free World afterward.
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead is a tragic story of life for African Americans in the Jim Crow south. The Civil Rights movement was reaching its height in the 1960s and the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s message of loving one's enemies inspired Elwood, as it inspired so many others. But the harsh reality of the system made Turner's approach seem more practical.
Although this story is fiction, it is based on an actual Florida reform school - The Dozier School for Boys - at which similar abuses occurred. Like Dozier, Nickel labeled itself a "reform school", even though it did little in the way of reform or education.
Whitehead brings the reader into the story by forcing us to connect with Elwood and Turner and to feel their pains. I read this shortly after his preceding novel "The Underground Railroad". Both novels dealt with racism in America, and each won a Pulitzer Prize; but I enjoyed "The Nickel Boys" more. I cared more about Elwood and Turner than I did about Cora; and the realism of the later novel made it more relevant to me.