THE REFORMATORY, by Tananarive Due
If you’re a committed reader of contemporary fiction, you are probably familiar with this premise: In mid-20th-century Jim Crow America, an unsuspecting young Black man finds himself sent to a fictionalized version of Florida’s infamously brutal Dozier School on dubious, if not false, charges. While there, he must do what he can to survive, which is far from a sure thing given the open secret of nighttime abuse, unexplained disappearances and student deaths.
That was the plot of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2019 novel, “The Nickel Boys,” and it’s also the basic outline of Tananarive Due’s new novel, “The Reformatory.”
Whitehead’s novel was lean, cool-toned and realist; Due’s, which she said she worked on for seven years, is much longer, much more emotive and eschews realism for the supernatural. It combines current concerns about race and justice for young Black men with an intensely readable, immersive story with decisive paranormal features. In fact, the novel’s extended, layered denouement is so heart-smashingly good, it made me late for work. I couldn’t stop reading. I needed to find out what was going to happen next, and next, and next.
The narrative begins on a morning in 1950 in Gracetown, Fla. It’s still early, but 12-year-old Robert Stephens’s day is “starting out wrong already.” He’s woken by the spectral presence of his late mother, a recurring visitation that signals Robert’s capacities to see and be seen by spirits, even if his steely older sister, Gloria, doesn’t believe him.
The events of the novel are put in motion after Robert defends Gloria from the swaggering predations of a well-connected and wealthy white boy, Lyle McCormack. To stop the harassment, Robert gives Lyle a quick kick to a kneecap, but that kind of thing doesn’t happen to the son of Red McCormack, the town’s longtime alpha male. As punishment, Robert is sentenced to six months at the Gracetown School for Boys — a locally feared and loathed institution that is known as the site of an unexplained fire that took the lives of many boys 30 years earlier.
The presiding judge expects a numb Robert and outraged Gloria to find the sentence lenient, even generous: He is sending Robert to a school, rather than to a work gang. Haddock, the school’s longtime and omnipotent superintendent, is even more delusional. He considers the sentence a sign of charity. “I’m your last chance, boy,” Haddock says. “A Negro child who’ll kick a white man will grow up to poison society and his own race. If he grows up. Getting sent here is the luckiest thing could have happened to you.” Then Haddock confidently and aggressively conducts a cavity search of Robert that feels as if it’s going in ever more terrible directions before Haddock shifts his mood and warmly shows Robert a picture of his own family, in which a 6-year-old Haddock is holding his baby sister for the camera. Robert notices that the baby is dead.
For the remainder of the novel, racialized humiliation, structural injustice, the phantasmagoric and the macabre feature together alongside the fast friendships, intrigues, competitions, small mercies and violent enmities of reform-school life.
Robert works in the kitchen, where he soon begins to see ghosts. His visitors are the unquiet spirits of boys who died, or were killed, while attending the school in years past, including around the time of the 1920 fire. Everyone inside the school is more or less aware of the ghosts but avoids talking about them too much, whereas Robert is particularly sensitive to their presence, which only attracts ghosts to him all the more.
When Haddock’s tough-love Black consigliere, Boone, who has his own form of folk magic, learns of Robert’s extrasensory capacities, he recruits Robert to be the superintendent’s “haint catcher.” The ghosts want their presence to be acknowledged and their wrongful deaths to be avenged, which will release them from their lingering on the school grounds, but for selfish and sadistic reasons that become increasingly clear as the story develops, Haddock wants the ghosts contained. As an incentive, he promises Robert an early release if he succeeds in capturing them. Robert agrees, though he’s torn about the prospect of gaining his freedom by capturing others, an ethical conflict that Due impressively renders as both specific to the character’s situation and resonant with larger questions of individual complicity in collective suffering.
Ghost-catching proves easier, at least initially, than the daily grind confronted by Robert’s school friends and foes, all of whom have their own tragic back stories. In Due’s wrenching plot, however, and in often sentimental and didactic prose, the increasingly canny Robert soon faces impossible choices between taking care of himself and punishing others for Haddock. “You’re not the only one in trouble,” the ghost of a slaughtered young Black man reminds him.
Due is a prolific writer, with a popular and acclaimed oeuvre that shows the influence of Octavia E. Butler. Her work has long featured otherworldly presences — whether malevolent or benevolent, trauma-afflicted or just plain weird — and her storytelling often revolves around plots set in realms and dimensions that intersect mysteriously and dangerously with the lives of ordinary Black people who are trying to make sense of strange and serious threats.
But “The Reformatory”is a departure from her past work in two notable ways. First, it is explicit in its autobiographical dimension. Due dedicates the novel to her great-uncle Robert Stephens, “who died at the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Fla., in 1937. He was 15 years old.” Second, the book has a narrower scope than her previous fiction — it takes place over a few months, in the same one or two locations. This concentrated attention sharpens the suspense; we’re tightly focused on the questions: Will Robert survive, and if so, what will it take?
Despite Due’s penchant for prose that is overly explanatory and emotive about Robert’s roiling inner life, he nevertheless emerges as a consistently engaging character. He changes from a loyal but melancholy, mother-haunted little brother into a self-preserving ghost hunter and, finally, into a daring justice seeker. His transformation tracks the novel’s own capacity to be, at once, a supernatural historical novel and a straight-up page-turner. This is a difficult combination to sustain for nearly 600 pages, but Due accomplishes it, and in so doing invites us to consider what it means to be enthralled, even entertained, by a young man’s ethical dilemmas, and to find ourselves unexpectedly rooting for revenge, for the living and the dead.
Randy Boyagoda is a professor of English at the University of Toronto. His latest novel is “Dante’s Indiana.”
THE REFORMATORY | By Tananarive Due | 570 pp. | Saga Press | $28.99