Thursday, January 16, 2014

Review: Good Kings, Bad Kings by Susan Nussbaum

Do you think that nursing homes are only for the elderly? Have you ever considered where physically and mentally disabled children and young adults whose parents can’t care for them or who are wards of the state live? I know I hadn’t, blithely assuming that these kids would, of course, live with their families, never considering that these families might not have the resources, physically or monetarily, or, frankly, for some families, the interest in caring for their children. But Susan Nussbaum’s PEN/ Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction award winning novel, Good Kings, Bad Kings, showed me how wrong I was. A number of disabled young people are abandoned in homes and are at the mercy of the often underpaid staff, the integrity of the private companies that run the homes for profit, and the greater community that serves the homes and the interests of the children living there.

Told by seven different characters, three teenagers living at ILLC (Illinois Learning and Life Skills Center), three staff members, and a woman paid to fill the beds at the home, the novel is eye-opening and impressive. Each of the characters is very different as they narrate their lives and interactions in the home. Yessenia has been sent to ILLC from Juvie after she beat another girl at school with the footrest of her wheelchair. She is fierce and quick to flame up in a temper but she’s also funny and intelligent and still grieving the loss of her beloved Tia Nene, the last person to love and care for her. Mia is pretty, sweet, and quiet and she and her boyfriend Teddy are inseparable until her vulnerability and dependence expose her to evil. Teddy is endearing and he wants nothing more than to get out of ILLC, live in his own apartment, and marry Mia. Joanne, a newly hired data entry clerk at the home, is disabled herself and she is appalled and astounded by the way in which the home is run, cutting corners and costs, leaving these children without the services they need and no one to advocate for them. Michelle is a rising star in sales at the private company that runs ILLC but through her closer contact in the home itself, she becomes progressively more disillusioned by what she sees even as she allows her boss and his shiny, rich life to escape her censure. Ricky is a young Latino man who both drives a bus transporting the kids and works as an aide in the home and he is gifted to see these teenagers as just plain kids who often don’t deserve the punishments dealt them. And finally, Jimmie is another aide at the home who has been homeless and dependent on others herself and who develops a deep bond with Yessenia because of their common experiences and their many shared personality traits.

There’s terrible abuse, greed, ignorance, and tragedy in these pages but there’s also love, caring, kindness, and empowerment. Each of the seven characters is very different, their voices are unique and believable, and the insight into their thoughts is sympathetically and realistically done. The lives that some of these kids lead will break your heart but their resilience in the face of it all is amazing. And in the end, they are just normal kids, no matter what their IQs are or whether they move about in wheelchairs, or are struggling to overcome a history of abuse. As all of the characters interact, a more complete picture of life in the home emerges, the difference among the attitudes and actions of staff members, how the kids see the rules and restrictions, and how they each interact with each other, teen to teen, teen to staff, and staff to staff. Nussbaum has peeled back the veneer and shown the horrific and the tender and although it is clear that places like ILLC and their ilk are not the answer, the story shows that there are no easy answers, no one size fits all solutions for such a diverse population. Well written and engaging, this is a wonderful novel, one that is hard to put down once you’ve met the wide range of personalities and heard their backstories within these pages.

Thanks to the publisher and LibraryThing Early Reviewers for sending me a copy of this book for review.

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