Review: Good Kings Bad Kings by Susan Nussbaum

Good Kings Bad Kings This powerful and inspiring debut is the 2012 winner of Barbara Kingsolver’s PEN/Bellwether Prize for fiction. Told in alternating perspectives by a varied and vocal cast of characters, Nussbaum’s novel pulls back the curtain to reveal the complicated and funny and tough life inside the walls of an institution for juveniles with disabilities. From Yessenia Lopez, who dreams of her next boyfriend and of one day of living outside those walls, to Teddy, a resident who dresses up daily in a full suit and tie, to Mia, who guards a terrifying secret, to Joanne, the new data-entry clerk who suddenly finds herself worrying about each and every kid, Nussbaum has crafted a multifaceted portrait of a way of life hidden from most of us. In this isolated human warehouse on Chicago’s South Side, friendships are forged, trust is built, and love affairs begin. And it’s in their alliances that the residents ultimately find the strength to bond together, resist their mistreatment, and fight back.” – Goodreads

In 2012, Good Kings Bad Kings by Susan Nussbaum won the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. Author Barbara Kingsolver had founded the Bellwether Prize in 2000 to “promote fiction that addresses issues of social justice and the impact of culture and politics on human relationships.” After reading this debut novel by Nussbaum, I must say I agree that it is a most appropriate winner of this award.

From the first chapter in this book, I was hooked. The story is told in the rich and powerful alternating voices of the residents, employees, and affiliates of the Illinois Learning and Life Skills Center (ILLC) – a nursing home for disabled adolescents – based in Chicago, Illinois.  Nussbaum expertly captures the voices of the youth residents, some of whom struggle with mental illness in addition to being physically challenged. She brings to life the compassion and warmth in three of the workers who care for and advocate for the youth. She heartbreakingly shapes the stories of abuse, neglect, and sexual abuse occurring – both secretly and openly – at ILLC. One abusive orderly, Louis, has a favorite quote he shares as he wields his power over the teens:

I can be a good king or I can be a bad king.”

As more and more of the abuse and neglect come to light, Joanne, an office worker – coincidentally, also disabled – discovers anomolies in the statistics and records of ILLC. She is somewhat of an activist and works behind the scenes to empower some of the youth while trying to bring to light the troubling information she has discovered in the records of ILLC. But it is ultimately tragic circumstances that spur one ILLC youth into action, whose example the others soon follow. Their actions bring attention to the wrongs done to them and drastic changes are promised to the residents of ILLC.

I so wish I could impart upon you the fantabulousness of this book! The cast is amazing – each character rings full with life and the sense that this person is real – so much so that you wish with all your heart you knew this person in reality. These are characters you will develop strong feelings for. And lest you doubt that Nussbaum knows of what she writes – the author herself lives with a disability after an accident years ago. Nussbaum is also well-known as an activist within the disabled community. In 2008, she was cited by Utne Reader as one of “50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World” for her extraordinary work with adolescent girls with disabilities.

That said, Good Kings Bad Kings is a tad bit predictable. Those of us familiar with the horrors that the daily newscasts can hold may already have an idea of what to expect. But that doesn’t discount the all-around greatness of this book! You do not want to miss out on reading this captivating novel. It is completely worth your time and your emotional investment. Go forth! Go forth, my friends, and seek… Good Kings Bad Kings by Susan Nussbaum. You won’t regret it.

4.5 stars out of 5

Source: Free Library of Philadelphia Digital Library

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