February 3, 2024

Review: The Reformatory

The Reformatory The Reformatory by Tananarive Due
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was difficult to read--but it is so, so good. It's the first time I've picked up a Tananarive Due novel, but it won't be the last.

This is the story of Robert Stephens Jr., a twelve-year-old African American boy in the fictional Florida town of Gracetown in 1950, who defends his sister Gloria against a white boy making unwanted advances and as a result is sent to the Gracetown School for Boys, the titular Reformatory. The book goes into the horrors Robert suffers there and the background of the Reformatory is gradually revealed. There Robert sees the ghosts, or "haints," of boys who died thirty years ago as a result of a fire set by the sociopathic superintendent, Fenton Haddock. The horrors continue throughout the book: the dehumanization and persecution of African Americans in the Jim Crow South is accurately and fully depicted here, and the horrors inflicted on Robbie and the other boys by white people far outweigh the supernatural horrors.

There are two storylines in this book: Robbie's ordeal at the Reformatory, and the parallel efforts of his sister Gloria to get him out. Gloria and Robbie's mother died before the story starts, and their union-organizing father was falsely accused of the rape of a white woman and had to flee to Chicago. Gloria is left to try to rescue her brother on her own, but she is aided by many other people: her godmother Miz Lottie and Lottie's adopted sons; Marian Hamilton, a volunteer at the Reformatory who meets Robbie and his doomed friend, Redbone, while volunteering to teach the Negro band at the school; John Dorsey, the lawyer based on the author's own father, a Civil Rights-era lawyer, and others. All these characters are fully drawn, complex people. Even the "haint," Blue, who manipulates Robbie into freeing the ghosts of the boys who died thirty years ago and luring Haddock to his death, has depth and nuance despite his alien, undead way of thinking. The pacing is expert and the final chapters, tracing Robbie's escape, his pursuit by Haddock and the Reformatory's dogs, and his final confrontation with Haddock, are almost unbearable in their tension and suspense.

Apparently the Reformatory is based on the real-life Dozier School for Boys, where another Robert Stephens, the author's relative, was killed in the 1930's. Due has taken her family history and spun it into an at times incredibly hard to read but important novel. This book provides a stark lesson that as a country we haven't left Jim Crow as far behind us as we like to think. The scene where Gloria and Miz Lottie are pulled over by the sheriff, the questioning they have to endure and the suspicion immediately cast upon them by the white deputies for merely being black women driving a car, could be played out in any number of similar traffic stops today.

This is a horror novel, yes, but it is also a thoroughly American novel, to our shame. Hopefully by casting some light on these terrible things of our past (and present), the author can nudge America, and particularly the white population of America, to acknowledge a past that is still not past, a past we must come to terms with. We owe it to the memory of the real-life Robert Stephens to try.

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