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The Reformatory


The Reformatory

Combining the terrifying realism of Colson Whitehead’s THE NICKEL BOYS with the chilling horror of works like Andrew Pyper’s THE RESIDENCE, Tananarive Due’s THE REFORMATORY is a heart-stopping, searing reimagining of Florida’s notoriously cruel Dozier School.

Set in 1950 in Gracetown, Florida, the novel begins on an ominous note. Though not much has gone right in 12-year-old Robert Stephens, Jr.'s young life --- his mother is dead from cancer, and his father escaped to Chicago after being wrongfully accused of raping a white woman --- today seems particularly bad. The smells of cooking meat from the wealthy white McCormacks down the way taunt him, and his father sent new boots, but they are two sizes too big. Then Lyle, the McCormacks’ son who once played with Robert and his sister, Gloria, but is now starting to resemble the grown white men who regularly call them the N-word, makes a move on Gloria. Before Robert knows it, he has kicked Lyle square in the knee, earned a boxing from Lyle’s father, Red, and been sentenced to six months in the Graceland School for Boys --- or, as it is more commonly known, the Reformatory.

"While the premise of THE REFORMATORY is no doubt familiar to many readers, Tananarive Due cuts the historical fiction elements of her book with jarring, jump-scare phantasmagorical elements to create one of the most chilling works of historical horror I have ever read."

Early on, Due makes clear that children in her world are more sensitive to ghostly spirits and haints. For months on end, Robert swears that he has been visited by the ghost of his mother, a comforting presence that seems to appear just between sleep and wake. But when he sets foot on the gorgeous, verdant lawns of the Reformatory, his senses tingle again, and this time not for good. As he is walked through his tour of the “school” (read: prison light), he senses boyish apparitions watching him, grabbing at his arm. And in one particularly harrowing moment, he sees the ghosts of a dozen boys cloaked in fire, screaming and begging for their lives.

Meanwhile, back in Gracetown proper, Gloria, only a teen herself, is desperate to bring Robert back from the Reformatory. She, like every resident of Gracetown, has heard the stories about boys who disappear behind the “school’s” iron gates, and the ones wrongfully sentenced to short stints who end up calling the school home for years on end. More than that, she knows that there is another history looming over her and her brother.

Beyond being wrongfully accused of raping a white woman, their father earned a name for himself by attempting to unionize other Black men. Now the wealthy, white, former slave owners of Gracetown want his head, but so too do his skinfolk, who fear the kind of attention he drew to their quiet corners of the lynching-loving town. It is obvious to Gloria in hindsight that young Robert’s arrest was a long time coming, as the town has looked for a way to punish the father by punishing the son. But it is equally obvious to her that her father left an immense burden on her shoulders when he fled: not just the raising of herself and her brother, but also the carrying on of the family name.

As Gloria continues to fight for her brother's freedom, Robert starts to learn the rules of the Reformatory, which are expansive enough to fill a Bible. Don’t appear smart or strong, but don’t appear too stupid or too weak either. Don’t ask questions…DON’T ask questions. And above all, if you’re young enough to see the haints, don’t pay them any attention, or risk becoming a haint yourself. This threat has a tangible component as well: boys claim that misbehavior gets you sent first to the “Funhouse” --- a veritable torture chamber --- and then to Boot Hill, the burial ground where boys help dig up the earth that will soon house their former classmates.

Robert struggles to keep up, but given his particular sensitivities to the haints, he soon catches the eye of Boone, one of the crueler officials at the Reformatory. Shocking to the boys because of his own dark skin, Boone enlists Robert to become the school’s haint catcher. He is promised his freedom if he complies, but the thing about haints, particularly those of cruelly, painfully murdered young boys, is that their freedom comes at a cost. In this case, it’s one that sets Robert firmly in the middle of a moral dilemma of justice, retribution, reckoning and revenge.

While the premise of THE REFORMATORY is no doubt familiar to many readers, Tananarive Due cuts the historical fiction elements of her book with jarring, jump-scare phantasmagorical elements to create one of the most chilling works of historical horror I have ever read. The crimes enacted in places like the Reformatory (or, as we would know it, the Dozier School) are horrifying enough on their own. But by placing her readers right into the mind and eyes of an innocent 12-year-old and making her history research-based and factual, the horror elements absolutely sing, making clear the power of horror and its ability not just to scare, but to provide a strange, sublime catharsis.

THE REFORMATORY is a real doorstopper, yet Due maintains a propulsive, suspenseful pace throughout, which is even more impressive given that the book focuses on just two main characters, two settings and only a few short months. This is expansive, lucid prose that is intensely moving and convincing, not just in spite of its more fantastical elements, but because of them. By forcing readers to face the ghosts of the cruelest evils of racism, bigotry and prejudice, Due reminds us that real, true evil is far closer and more unimaginable than fiction would have us believe.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on November 3, 2023

The Reformatory
by Tananarive Due

  • Publication Date: October 31, 2023
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction, Horror
  • Hardcover: 576 pages
  • Publisher: Gallery/Scout Press
  • ISBN-10: 1982188340
  • ISBN-13: 9781982188344