“Black history is Black horror,” novelist Tananarive Due has said. In her stunning new novel, “The Reformatory,” Due underscores this insight to brilliant effect.

Set in the Jim Crow South in 1950, the book unsparingly depicts the violence and trauma inflicted on the children and teenagers imprisoned in the Gracetown School for Boys, a juvenile detention home inspired by the real-life Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida.

Due has a personal connection to this history. In 2013, she learned from the Florida state attorney that her great-uncle was among the scores of missing boys buried in unmarked graves at Dozier. Only 15 when he died in 1937, he was one of almost 100 children who met their deaths at the school.

From this unbearably grim past, Due – whose books include “The Between” and “The Living Blood” – has fashioned an enthralling tale of childhood resilience and hope.

Robert Stephens, 12, lives with his 16-year-old sister, Gloria, in Gracetown, a close-knit Black community that borders a town populated by descendants of those who enslaved their ancestors, including members of the Ku Klux Klan.

Robert and Gloria’s mother has recently died of cancer; their father is a well-respected activist engaged in organizing mill workers and registering voters. After he’s falsely accused of raping a white woman, he flees to Chicago, where the children plan to join him.


But when Lyle McCormack, a white boy (and the siblings’ occasional playmate), makes sexual overtures toward Gloria, Robert comes to her defense. Though Lyle struck him first, Robert is sentenced to six months at the notorious Gracetown School for Boys. “Oh, there are classrooms,” says the well-meaning but ineffectual white social worker who accompanies Robert to the school, “but it’s a prison for sure.”

Black and white children are incarcerated there, all of them subjected to the brutal punishments doled out by Superintendent Haddock. The worst of these involve being taken to the Funhouse (based on Dozier’s White House), where boys are beaten to unconsciousness, sometimes death. Those who attempt to escape are hunted by guards with vicious dogs, as well as locals who receive a small bounty for each boy they capture, dead or alive. No one has ever escaped.

In Robert’s hometown, children are known to see haints – ghosts. Robert has glimpsed his dead mother several times, and his sister senses the future – usually dire – of friends or strangers.

As soon as he enters the reformatory grounds, Robert is assailed by a terrible vision: “His skin felt like it was sizzling grease in a pan. The sky above him went black as he waded into thick smoke. Then came the worst: the screams. … Robert had never heard human screams so wretched they were like animals. The sound was solid enough to touch, all around him. Boys. A room of screaming boys. Burning in a fire … faces twisted with pain and terror, half hidden in the smoke clouds, some already charred black.”

Robert isn’t the only one who sees haints. Noting his unease, a guard warns him: “Don’t listen to them haints. Or you’ll be a haint too.”

Inside, Robert is quickly befriended by Redbone and Blue, two boys who work with him in the kitchen, a coveted assignment since they can gorge themselves on leftovers.


Redbone is extremely protective of Blue, despite the younger boy’s penchant for malicious pranks. Blue is the one who tells Robert, “Nobody stays nice,” a refrain that echoes throughout the book, as Due shows how incarceration corrupts or destroys nearly everyone within the prison’s walls.

The narrative alternates between the points of view of various characters: Robert as he plots his escape from the inside; Gloria, who is doing the same with the help of her elderly godmother, Miz Lottie; and Gloria’s white employer, whose efforts at kindness are tainted by her casual racism.

After the Klan burns down their home, Gloria leaves town to rescue her brother. In one of the novel’s most disturbing scenes, she senses the deaths of several fellow travelers in a boardinghouse – not fictional characters, but actual people murdered by racists, crimes that anticipate the killing of Emmett Till. Our own world reflects the reformatory’s horrors, unmitigated by a gloss of the supernatural.

Robert and Gloria form this tale’s beating heart, fictional characters as captivating and alive as any I’ve encountered in a long time. Their mutual strength and love for each other illuminate the darkness of the story Due tells, exemplifying her comment in an interview that she prefers what she calls redemptive horror, and uses “history to help people heal.”

As Robert uncovers more of the reformatory’s dreadful past, he realizes he has a chance to free the souls of those who died there. This means making a terrible bargain with Superintendent Haddock, a sociopath as ghastly as Judge Holden in Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian.” I barely stirred while reading the novel’s final hundred, deeply satisfying pages, transported into Due’s beautiful and terrible world, where “death was as real as breathing.”

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