I got a plan to run away. I’m gonna go right before they’re set to ship me out of here. I been figuring it out but there’s still a few details that need a little work. I know how I’m gonna sneak out, that’s easy, but I’m not sure where I’m gonna stay at. The plan has to be perfect so I don’t end up in a place even worse than this place. – Teddy Dobbs, from Good Kings Bad Kings, page 37 –
Teddy Dobbs is only one character who speaks to the reader in Susan Nussbaum’s novel about a group of teenagers living in an institution for juveniles with disabilities. There is also Yessenia Lopez who is still reeling from the loss of her tia Nene, and the tragic Mia Oviedo who is hiding a secret. Staff members also narrate this novel: Michelle Volkmann,a recruiter for the institution; the compassionate Joanne Madsen who is herself disabled, and the concerned Ricky Hernandez to name a few. Nussbaum alternates her characters’ voices chapter by chapter, revealing a community bound by necessity and challenged to survive in a world where they have little to no control.
I requested this book from the Library Thing Early Reviewers program because I thought it would resonate with me. I have worked as a physical therapist consultant for adults and kids with developmental delays. I love my clients. I appreciate their spirit and courage, their ability to live in the moment, and their open personalities. I have seen some of the sadness as well – the individuals who have been raped, or institutionalized in facilities that are no more than holding pens for people unable to care for themselves. I chose to work for a company that provides consistently excellent care in a clean, family-oriented setting (a home, not an institution) and so many of my clients who came for bad environments are now enjoying life in a much more independent and caring setting.
That said, I found myself feeling so sad as I read this novel. I do think Nussbaum is doing a service to the disabled community who are still living in institutions and finding their lives completely controlled by outside forces – some which are destructive. But I really had a hard time getting through this novel. It was painful for me despite some humorous voices. I ached for these characters.
Those readers who enjoy literary fiction will appreciate the honesty of the prose, and the careful development of the characters. But it is also a heartbreaking read, one that found me taking many breaks just to regroup.
This book was awarded the Pen/Bellwether Prize for fiction.
FTC Disclosure: I received this book through the Library Thing Early Review program.