Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Book Review: The Reformatory by Tananarive Due

Publisher: Saga Press
Page Count: 576 Pages
Publication Date/Year: October 2023
Genre: Horror

Tananarive Due is one of the Important Voices in horror literature, her work has been nominated for many awards, she’s won the American Book Award (The Living Blood), she teaches Black Horror at UCLA, has been a expert “talking head” on multiple horror documentaries (In Search of Darkness, Horror Noire) and no less a horror Icon than Stephen King is an advocate for her work. In a genre that is largely white and male, Due is a bright light as a Black Woman writer who spins a damn good story and often with Something to Say. I’ve read about a half-dozen of her novels at this point in time.  I consider her novel The Good House a modern Haunted House masterpiece. Her African Immortals series (My Soul to KeepThe Living Blood) is a powerful dark fantasy saga.

When I saw the book for sale at New York Comic Con a few days before the official on-sale date, I knew I had to have it.

With all of that said, The Reformatory will likely go down as her Magnum Opus, her defining work. Set in Florida in Jim Crow 1950s, the novel focuses on Robert Stephens, Jr., an African-American boy who is forced into a prison camp as a result of a minor scuffle with a white neighbor. The novel is a tale of racism (duh), family bonds, ghosts, the dead, and the dark underside of our country.

On to the story...

When Robbie's white neighbor Lyle McCormack, the son of a fairly influential man in Gracetown, makes advances on Robert’s sister, Robert steps into the situation. There’s a minor physical altercation between Robert and Lyle. As a result, Robert is beaten by Lyle’s father, handcuffed, and shipped off to the Gracetown School for Boys. As it turns out, Gracetown is a recurring town in Due's fiction and if anything screamed the opposite of what its name implied, it is this “home for boys.” 

I was immediately put in the mind of "Sunlight Gardner's Home for Wayward Boys" from Stephen King & Peter Straub's The Talisman. However; the Gracetown School is even more horrific because it is based on a place that actually existed and history tells us horrible, racist, abusive behavior existed in places like this. At the school also known as "The Reformatory," racism and brutality are the norm. When Robert is taken into the School, during the drive up, he has a vision of pain and suffering, he sees fire, he feels the flames, and Robert hears the screams of death. It affects him profoundly and does not go unnoticed. What makes it all the more strange is that this fire occurred 25 years prior to the events of the novel. Robert has shown a proclivity for seeing ghosts. He is often visited by the ghost of his own mother.

The Gracetown School for Boys is haunted not just by the looming hands of racism and violence, but actual ghosts, or “haints” as they are referred to in the novel. It is not a term I was familiar with before reading The Reformatory and I’ve read quite a lot of horror. Then again, I haven’t read enough horror written by non-white people. Be that as it may, haints are considered vengeful spirits, especially by the people in power at The Reformatory.

Robert is not only haunted by the ghosts at the School, his father’s past haunts him as well. Robert has to live in the shadow of his father (Robert Sr.) being a wanted man. Robert Sr. dared speak out about inequities in Gracetown, he was labeled a communist and his voice of "dissention" was looked down upon even more because he was black.  Because Robert Sr. is nowhere to be seen and can’t be found near Gracetown by the local authorities, there’s a little bit of the sins of the father being paid for by the son.

As hard and brutal as life is within the walls of The Reformatory, Robert makes friends and tries to be upbeat. He catches the eye the whipping master and Warden of the School, a man named Haddock. Robert’s affinity with seeing haints is something that makes him useful to the Warden, because Warden Haddoc does not like being haunted.

While Robert is the central figure of the novel, Due gives ample “page time” to his sister, Gloria. Gloria is a little bit older and has one single goal: get Robert out of the Reformatory. Her journey shines an equally powerful lens on the racism of the time (and frankly, it is sad to see how some of the ugliness is still alive today) and the inequities she faces even when simply trying to visit her brother or trying to have her voice heard.

Due has a very personal connection to the history that informs the backdrop of the novel. Without knowing that, the novel feels intimate and personal. Knowing the connection only hammers home that part even more. Her prose and storytelling is gut-wrenching, addictive, and powerful.

None of this would work nearly as well if Tananarive Due wasn't a marvelous writer and storyteller. She pulled me into the story immediately, I felt empathy for young Robert and Gloria and felt their anger, pain, and frustration. Her skill at portraying youthful protagonists dealing with adult horrors is powerful, engaging, and enthralling. This is the kind of book that entertains and enlightens. It is simply transcendent. 

The Reformatory is a landmark work, a powerful coming-of-age horror novel that is a beautiful and harrowing tale. I will be shocked if The Reformatory is not at least short-listed for multiple awards for books published in 2023.

Highly, highly recommended.

© 2023 Rob H. Bedford

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