The Reformatory
October 29, 2023

Book Review

The Reformatory

reviewed by Carolyn Scott


In 1950, twelve-year-old Robbie Stephens Jr. and his sister, Gloria, lived in Gracetown, Florida. Jim Crow laws in the southern states marginalized African Americans, denying them equal opportunities in education, health care, and employment. Violence was rampant with mobs and the KKK terrorizing Black communities, lynching outspoken individuals, and burning their homes and businesses.

Robbie and Gloria’s father, Robert Stephens Sr., is sought after by the Sheriff and the KKK for expressing his desire to unionize African American workers. He has fled to Chicago, entrusting his children to Miss Lottie Powell, Robbie’s godmother. However, when Robbie defends his sister from a white landowner’s son’s unwanted advances by kicking him in the knee, the Sheriff seizes an opportunity to target Robert Sr. through his family. Consequently, Robbie is sentenced to six months at the notorious Gracetown School for Boys, commonly known as the Reformatory.

The Reformatory isn’t a typical school. Segregated by race, white boys receive a decent education, while black boys attend classes only in the afternoon, working in fields, foundries, or butcheries in the mornings. Superintendent Fenton J. Haddock, a sociopath, oversees the institution. He relishes punishing boys, particularly the black ones, who face brutal repercussions for minor infractions. Many of these punishments are severe, leading to boys ending up in the infirmary with lacerated backs. Even worse fates await repeat offenders. It’s no wonder that boys have died there, their spirits lingering ominously.

When Haddock learns that Robbie can see these ghosts, he finds a sinister purpose for the boy. But Robbie doesn’t just see the spirits; he witnesses the tortures they endured. Recognizing that his only escape from Haddock’s clutches is to flee, he plans his departure — a sentiment shared by his sister and Miss Lottie. However, those who attempt escape face bloodthirsty dogs and often meet deadly ends.

This tale is undeniably horrifying, and the ghosts aren’t its most terrifying aspect. The story paints a vivid picture of life in Jim Crow America, marked by racism, injustice, fear, and violence. Inspired by the real Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida, it recounts a harrowing history of racism, torture, abuse, and murder perpetuated by those in charge. Despite numerous investigations over its 111-year existence, the Dozier School wasn’t shut down by the state until 2011. Tananarive Due, a renowned speculative fiction writer, co-authored “Freedom in the Family” with her mother, detailing her mother’s civil rights struggles in 1960s America. Thus, she adeptly merges these genres, producing a gripping, suspenseful historical fiction novel replete with vengeful spirits. Excellently written and paced, this story masterfully showcases racial injustice.

Thanks to Gallery Books via NetGalley for providing a copy for review.

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