The Nickel Boys - Colson Whitehead


Even in death the boys were trouble.

The secret graveyard lay on the north side of the Nickel campus, in a patchy acre of wild grass between the old work barn and the school dump. The field had been a grazing pasture when the school operated a dairy, selling milk to local customers—one of the state of Florida’s schemes to relieve the taxpayer burden of the boys’ upkeep. The developers of the office park had earmarked the field for a lunch plaza, with four water features and a concrete bandstand for the occasional event. The discovery of the bodies was an expensive complication for the real estate company awaiting the all clear from the environmental study, and for the state’s attorney, which had recently closed an investigation into the abuse stories. Now they had to start a new inquiry, establish the identities of the deceased and the manner of death, and there was no telling when the whole damned place could be razed, cleared, and neatly erased from history, which everyone agreed was long overdue.

All the boys knew about that rotten spot. It took a student from the University of South Florida to bring it to the rest of the world, decades after the first boy was tied up in a potato sack and dumped there. When asked how she spotted the graves, Jody said, “The dirt looked wrong.” The sunken earth, the scrabbly weeds. Jody and the rest of the archaeology students from the university had been excavating the school’s official cemetery for months. The state couldn’t dispose of the property until the remains were properly resettled, and the archaeology students needed field credits. With stakes and wire they divided the area into search grids, dug with hand shovels and heavy equipment. After sifting the soil, bones and belt buckles and soda bottles lay scattered on their trays in an inscrutable exhibit.

The Nickel Boys called the official cemetery Boot Hill, from the Saturday matinees they had enjoyed before they were sent to the school and exiled from such pastimes. The name stuck, generations later, with the South Florida students who’d never seen a Western in their lives. Boot Hill was just over the big slope on the north campus. The white concrete X’s that marked the graves caught the sunlight on bright afternoons. Names were carved into two-thirds of the crosses; the rest were blank. Identification was difficult, but competition between the young archaeologists made for constant progress. The school records, though incomplete and haphazard, narrowed down who WILLIE 1954 had been. The burned remains accounted for those who perished in the dormitory fire of 1921. DNA matches with surviving family members—the ones the university students were able to track down—reconnected the dead to the living world that proceeded without them. Of the forty-three bodies, seven remained unnamed.

The students piled the white concrete crosses in a mound next to the excavation site. When they returned to work one morning, someone had smashed them into chunks and dust.

Boot Hill released its boys one by one. Jody was excited when she hosed down some artifacts from one of the trenches and came across her first remains. Professor Carmine told her that the little flute of bone in her hand most likely belonged to a raccoon or other small animal. The secret graveyard redeemed her. Jody found it while wandering the grounds in search of a cell signal. Her professor backed up her hunch, on account of the irregularities at the Boot Hill site: all those fractures and cratered skulls, the rib cages riddled with buckshot. If the remains from the official cemetery were suspicious, what had befallen those in the unmarked burial ground? Two days later cadaver-sniffing dogs and radar imaging confirmed matters. No white crosses, no names. Just bones waiting for someone to find them.

“They called this a school,” Professor Carmine said. You can hide a lot in an acre, in the dirt.

One of the boys or one of their relatives tipped off the media. The students had a relationship with some of the boys at that point, after all the interviews. The boys reminded them of crotchety uncles and flinty characters from their old neighborhoods, men who might soften once you got to know them but never lost that hard center. The archaeology students told the boys about the second burial site, told the family members of the dead kids they’d dug up, and then a local Tallahassee station dispatched a reporter. Plenty of boys had talked of the