Paula Guran Reviews The Reformatory by Tananarive Due – Locus Online


Paula Guran Reviews The Reformatory by Tananarive Due – Locus Online

The Reformatory, Tananarive Due (Saga Press 978-1-982-188344, $28.99, 567pp, hc) October 2023.

Nothing is more horrific than real life. Tananarive Due takes a personal family connection to the terrors of the Dozier School – a reform school operated by the state of Florida from 1900 to 2011 known for its brutal abuse and deaths of incarcerated boys – and the abomination of the Jim Crow South and combines them with the supernatural to deliver a riveting masterpiece that manages to be both heartwarming and chilling.

Set in the fictitious Gracetown, Florida, in 1950, the story revolves around twelve-year-old Robert Stephens, Jr., and his 16-year-old sister, Gloria. The siblings’ mother has recently died from cancer, and their union-activist father has fled to Chicago after being falsely accused of raping a white woman. After defending Gloria from the advances of the teenaged scion of the town’s most powerful white family, Robert is sentenced to six months in the Gracetown School for Boys, more commonly known as the Reformatory. Some boys sent there are never heard from again. And 30 years before, a disastrous fire killed many of the Reformatory’s young inmates.

Since his mother’s death, Robbie has been comforted by the ghostly presence of his mother. He is also sensitive to phantoms – haints – that permeate the Reformatory. But as one boy tells him, ‘‘There’s worse things to worry about than haints.’’ Chief among those things is Superin­tendent Haddock – the personification of evil.

While Robert is surviving the school, the resourceful Gloria and her guardian, Miz Lot­tie – an 83-year-old spinster with a glass eye – work to free him. Their efforts include finding an NAACP lawyer, John Dorsey.

But this is a place and time when white mobs ‘‘came when Negroes stood up for themselves, a bonfire of pent-up hate and envy…’’ And, perhaps, Gracetown is particularly cursed. As Miz Lottie tells Gloria, ‘‘colored folks fighting for what’s theirs is like a virus to white folks – and they kill a virus so it don’t spread…. And if there’s any such thing as evil on this earth, Gloria, it’s here in Gracetown. In the soil, hear? Gracetown soil remembers. It’s like a mirror that shines yo’ ugly back at you.’’

Due’s sense of family and its importance is a frequent theme in her work, and it has never been stronger than in this novel. Her charac­terization of supporting characters is invariably indelible, as are her portrayals of the nuances of Black community and white people who are ‘‘too scared to tell the truth.’’ Her well-researched portrayal of the systemic racism of the era rings with bitter truth.

It all wraps up with a breathtaking sequence that is literally impossible to stop reading.

Even though it takes place more than 70 years ago, The Reformatory resonates with today’s many injustices. Evil never exists only in a vil­lain like Haddock, but in society as a whole. Due reminds us to recognize this and do something about it. She also gives us some hope that with courage and the help of others, maybe we can all survive. This is a novel that must be read.

Paula Guran has edited more than 40 science fiction, fantasy, and horror anthologies and more than 50 novels and collections featuring the same. She’s reviewed and written articles for dozens of publications. She lives in Akron OH, near enough to her grandchildren to frequently be indulgent.

This review and more like it in the December and January 2023 issue of Locus.

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