I have always been fascinated by first books. I found Good Kings, Bad Kings, Susan Nussbaum's first novel, enthralling, exciting, funny, infuriating, and bracing in turn. Nussbaum has created a touching and lovely mosaic from first person narratives of broken, needy, and wounded people. The outside structure is the Illinois Learning and Life Skills Center (ILLC), a nursing facility for juveniles with disabilities, but the inner cohesion is twofold: the mission and purpose of the institution, and the bonds these young people form among themselves and with some of their caretakers. While the institution itself is stifling and destructive, the personal relations are often healing, both for the students and for the adults.
Social organization is embodied in its institutions, which perform the necessary tasks of a society. So, institutions like ILLC may be inevitable, but it is important to remember that they have both an outer and an inner dimension, and can be examined through such a lens. Besides their actual structures, they have their own collective personality and even a spirituality, all of which define their purpose and even their perception of both clients and providers. Susan Nussbaum explores this living inner dimension - or power - and finds that it can be, in ancient language, either an angel or a demon. At one point, a young woman holds a sign that says, "THIS PLACE ABUSE AND KILL CHILDREN," pointing out the demon side that possesses much of the institution as well as the social structures which promote the establishment of such places. Kind adults within the structure can mitigate the forces that vitiate the lives in their care, but they cannot completely protect their charges from the destructive power of the institution itself. One student explains to a sympathetic adult:
what I'm saying is that us youth come to these places on account of we got no place else to go and the least they could do is to take care of us and make sure nobody gets beat up or gets raped or left in the shower by mistake and killed. And don't send people off to the booby hatch just because they homesick and didn't take their meds. We are teenaged youth, and I mean, what do they expect?
At the same time, one adult caretaker empowers students whose lives seem determined by institutional policy. She explains to one, "
.you have the right to live in the community, with caregivers you hire and fire. Or there are living situations
[which] have more round-the-clock help if you decide you need that." Each student and adult struggles with power and its source, as each of us must do: Does power come from institutional authority or from within our own hearts and minds? Do we hand our lives over to outside forces or do we struggle for the freedom to become authentically human, accepting the responsibility that entails?
Susan Nussbaum, already a successful playwright, turns her hand to fiction with Good King Bad Kings. Her playwriting skills are on full display as she creates distinct, empathic, and multidimensional characters using their own words in a series of monologues. These monologues shed light on the relation of each character to one another and to the institution. In turn, we witness the development of unique personalities in their triumphs and failures in seeking authenticity - or, as the Velveteen Rabbit would have it, "Real isn't how you are made It's a thing that happens to you." The book calls to mind the marvelous and touching Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, another story of young people caught in a system over which they have no choice or control.
Yessina Lopez, a student, rises from angry withdrawal to empowered leadership. Mia Oviedo, another student, battles the isolation and helplessness that her cerebral palsy inflicts. Joanne Madsen, a data-entry clerk and a quadriplegic, empowers the younger people around her with a new vision of who they could be. Ricky Henderson becomes more than a driver and general factotum by his growing compassion and empathy for those whom he serves. Michelle Volkmann, a recruiter for the corporation that owns ILLC, develops from an agent of the institution simply doing a job to questioning the ethical atmosphere that has permitted her to convince parents and guardians to turn children over to a system whose fundamental aim is mere profit. Jimmie Kendric, a failed singer and a lesbian dealing with her own demons, finds wholeness in the love of the children who find in her an ally and a friend. In these and other characters, Susan Nussbaum presents us with a cast we not only care about but can come to love. Together they create the angel side of the the institution.
Nussbaum has not created a linear, plot-based book, but rather a mosaic out of the inter-relationships of individual lives, whether in conflict, in power struggles, or in love. Good Kings, Bad Kings mirrors the way our lives are lived, not in any straight line but in the choices and responses to each other in the particulars of our lives. I look forward to entering another of Susan's worlds and engaging with more of those characters who live in her fertile imagination.
Here is a wonderful article about Susan Nussbaum's journey to this book.
This review was originally published in July 2013, and has been updated for the November 2013 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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