Tananarive Due’s fiction abounds with restless spirits, frustrated immortals, and the boundary territories situated between life and death. In that way, Due has situated herself in a familiar tradition of writers dealing with horror and the uncanny. But there’s another component to Due’s work that helps to explain why her fiction has found such a receptive audience over the years: a deep-rooted concern with the ethical dilemmas that her characters face, and the moral implications of them.
Due’s new novel The Reformatory has a sprawling scope, taking in the horrific history of a reform school in 1950s Florida, but also encompassing the state of the civil rights movement, the challenges of organized labor, and the moral rot at the heart of the Jim Crow-era South. At its heart are two siblings, one of whom periodically sees visions of the dead, the other of whom catches glimpse of the future. And its villain, Warden Haddock, is an especially terrifying figure—an authoritarian from whom even Strother Martin’s authoritarian prison warden in Cool Hand Luke might recoil in fear. And yet what stands out about The Reformatory isn’t necessarily its scope, its horrors, or its invocation of real-life history—instead, it’s the subtlety with which Due tells this story.
It’s also a book which, despite its 1950s setting, feels suffused with a very contemporary urgency—but we’ll get to that in due time.
Siblings Robbie and Gloria Stephens are at the heart of this book, and the vast majority of it is told via their close third-person perspectives. Robbie is 12; Gloria is a few years older, and she’s drawn the attention of Lyle McCormack, football star and son of the town’s richest man. Robbie and Gloria are Black, Lyle is white, and this is Florida in 1950, where the legacies of slavery and hate crimes are still very present. After a heated conversation, Robbie kicks Lyle; Lyle’s father shows up and boxes Robbie’s ear. Unfortunately, that doesn’t resolve the matter; soon enough, a local judge sentences Robbie to six months in the Gracetown School for Boys—the reformatory of the title.
From there, The Reformatory follows Robbie’s life at Gracetown and Gloria’s efforts to free her brother, which also provides a window into the social changes of the 1950s—and the efforts to repress any forms of progress. Robbie and Gloria’s father, we learn, has left their Florida town for Chicago after his union organizing efforts led to him being framed for a crime he did not commit. Their mother died before the events depicted in the novel—but she remains a presence in their lives, both figuratively and literally.
Due mentions before the novel even begins that she was inspired to write this after learning of the death of a relative of hers who died at the Dozier School for Boys—a space that an NPR report called “a notorious, state-run institution that closed last year after more than a century.” The article in question was published in 2012; it also reveals that “[s]ome 81 boys are known to have died there.”
It’s not hard to imagine a version of this story with no supernatural elements at all—and this is very much a novel where the horrors that both individual people and societal institutions are capable of are far more unsettling than anything uncanny. But both Stephens siblings do have uncanny abilities: Robbie can see spirits of the dead (or haints); Gloria can sometimes catch a glimpse of someone’s future, usually associated with a strong smell.
Robbie’s ability to see haints makes him uniquely able to perceive them in a location that, you won’t be surprised to learn, has no shortage of the restless dead. In an unsettling twist, Warden Haddock is aware of their presence as well, and seeks to contain them—and enlists Robbie to help him with this. It’s here that the moral dilemmas many of Due’s characters face come into focus, as Robbie is forced to be complicit in unethical actions and faced with impossible decisions.
It’s here that Due also evokes the way in which the Reformatory—and the larger system it represents—has a corrupting effect on even the most well-meaning people who encounter it. It’s discernible in Robbie’s moral reckoning; it’s palpable in the way Mr. Loehmann, a well-intentioned social worker, feels paralyzed to take too bold of a stance against the abuses of that system; and it’s felt in the manner that Mrs. Hamilton, who leads the Reformatory’s band, has effectively repressed her awareness of how corrupt the institution is.
The abuses of the Reformatory and the abuses (and flat-out crimes) of Warden Haddock blur together, which seems intentional. At one point, Haddock’s thoughts reveal both his outsized sense of his own importance and the way in which the Reformatory has made itself essential to the local community, with all of the fraught ethics that that implies:
“Without the Reformatory, where would this town get its corn? Who would run the printing press? He wasn’t just trying to protect himself: the Reformatory was like a town unto itself, and his town could perish. It could perish today.”
While this book is set in the middle of the 20th century, it also isn’t hard to pick up on some contemporary resonances in its antagonist’s quest to suppress the worst parts of the Reformatory’s history. At one point, Haddock leads the Reformatory’s students in a kind of call-and-response: “Say, ‘The past belongs in the past! I rebuke evil spirits who dwell in history!’” The novel may be set in 1950, but it feels very relevant to 2023.
To go too far into the nature of this novel’s ghosts would be to spoil some plot developments, but it’s notable that Due does portray them as having their own agenda—one which largely dovetails with Robbie’s, but not entirely. That’s one of the many features that makes this book such an engrossing read: the way that Due gives nearly every character and group distinct agendas, which don’t always line up even when specific personalities align.
In the end, The Reformatory bristles with suspense and urgency, opening the door wider on a horrific period in history even as it tells a thrilling story of its heroes coming of age under the most unsettling circumstances. This is a novel that functions on a number of different levels—and succeeds at them all.
The Reformatory is published by Saga Press.
Read an excerpt.
Tobias Carroll is the managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn. He is the author of the short story collection Transitory (Civil Coping Mechanisms) and the novel Reel (Rare Bird Books).