A gripping, page-turning novel set in Jim Crow Florida that follows Robert Stephens Jr. as he’s sent to a segregated reform school that is a chamber of terrors where he sees the horrors of racism and injustice, for the living, and the dead.
Twelve-year-old Robbie Stephens, Jr., is sentenced to six months at the Gracetown School for Boys, a reformatory, for kicking the son of the largest landowner in town in defense of his older sister, Gloria. So begins Robbie’s journey further into the terrors of the Jim Crow South and the very real horror of the school they call The Reformatory.
Robbie has a talent for seeing ghosts, or haints. But what was once a comfort to him after the loss of his mother has become a window to the truth of what happens at the reformatory. Boys forced to work to remediate their so-called crimes have gone missing, but the haints Robbie sees hint at worse things. Through his friends Redbone and Blue, Robbie is learning not just the rules but how to survive. Meanwhile, Gloria is rallying every family member and connection in Florida to find a way to get Robbie out before it’s too late.
The Reformatory is a haunting work of historical fiction written as only American Book Award–winning author Tananarive Due could, by piecing together the life of the relative her family never spoke of and bringing his tragedy and those of so many others at the infamous Dozier School for Boys to the light in this riveting novel.
First and foremost, I want to thank the kind people over at Gallery/Saga Press for the advanced copy of this novel!
The Reformatory is one of those novels in which I don’t know if words can adequately reflect the totality of the impact it makes. It is one of those novels that stops you in your tracks and will be remembered for decades. The toll this book takes on one in its totality is truly remarkable and is worthy of note; no emotional punches are pulled. Set in Jim Crow-era Florida, we follow what remains of the Stephens family, older sister Gloria and twelve-year-old Robbie Stephens Jr. Unfortunately, this already dwindled family unit is separated even further when Robbie is sentenced to six months at what is known as The Reformatory, a “school” for “troubled” boys that carries a reputation for being haunted. However, the ghosts in this story are nowhere near the most horrifying feature. Due’s exploration into the abuse these boys endured at The Reformatory is gut-wrenching and rooted in horrific truths. The sheer attention to every detail and the thorough characterization of each individual in The Reformatory stand to mark this book as a modern classic.
Again, I feel as though my thoughts cannot fully explain the weight of this novel. Through Due’s remarkable style of writing and the full consideration she gives each character, this novel is a labor of significance and tenacity. Even more so, this is an emotionally hefty book. This period of time in which The Reformatory is set is horrific in and of itself. Added to this is the hell (injustice is probably a more eloquent term here but I don’t find it carries the same weight) that Robbie must endure and the hauntings of the boys who died as the result of negligence or outright murder. The overall tone and atmosphere seeps with despair and bleakness. However, the characters of Gloria, Mrs. Hamilin, and Miz Lottie give the reader hope for Robbie’s survival in a truly abominable place.
Let’s get the bad out of the way by addressing one of the many evils in this story. By far, Haddock is the most repulsive, atrocious “villain” I have encountered in horror fiction thus far. This should speak to Due’s writing abilities because, above all, he felt incredibly real. That’s the most upsetting part of all of this; there were (and arguably still are) men like him in our world today who feast on terror and pain. The fear that Robbie experiences at the sheer mention of Haddock’s name is written so clearly, that it was hard to not experience some level of that fear myself.
Alternatively, many aspects of this novel touched me deeply and emotionally; these were namely the characters who maintained close relationships with Robbie and worked effortlessly to bring him out of The Reformatory. His sister, Gloria, never once flinched in the face of what she and her brother are up against even when violence is aimed directly at her. Despite the larger political influences at play, her bravery and resolve to bring Robbie home exist to give us hope in a sea of bleakness. In turn, the characters that help her, such as Miz Lottie and Mrs. Hamiliton, are complex and have survived injustices of their own. Every character and relationship in this book is so deeply fleshed out and layered with their connections to one another.
This is also true of the friends Robbie makes once at The Reformatory. To avoid spoilers, I’ll speak in broad strokes about the events that unfold within the wall of this horrid place. Robbie’s new friend, Redbone, may be my favorite character in the whole novel. The bond that they forge during their traumatic time together is very moving and makes this story all the more tragic given the circumstances in which they meet. So much of Robbie’s point of view is spent trying to discern the rules (spoken and unspoken) of The Reformatory; he is constantly operating in a mindset of doubt and fear. The few moments of reprieve Robbie experiences are often with the help of Redbone or through his guidance.
The largest takeaway I have from reading this book is the importance of sharing stories such as these. In a world where books are being banned left, right, and center, these stories cannot disappear. While The Reformatory is a work of fiction, certain truths are evident given the facts of our history as a country. In fact, most of the novel is based on fact. This book is deeply haunting and upsetting, not because there are ghosts, but because parts of this story were a reality for so many. The most gut-churning scenes have nothing to do with the supernatural and everything to do with racism, abuse, and violence.
The Reformatory is a deeply involved tale detailing the atrocities of the Jim Crow era in the South. Tananarive Due writes well-explored characters who are fighting against a system that’s doomed to crush them. The sheer amount of attention and effort she exhibits in this book is profound. This is a gritty, violent book that doesn’t shy away from any injustice. While I highly recommend this book, I will advise everyone to check trigger warnings given these facts. It is not an understatement to mark this novel as equal parts haunting and significant.