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> > > ‘Good Kings Bad Kings’ a novel by Susan Nussbaum

22 April 2014

By Emmeline Burdett

yellow book cover with a comic-style illustration of a woman with a giant pair of scissors cutting off the hand of a young girl

Front cover of Susan Nussbaum's award-winning novel, ‘Good Kings Bad Kings’

‘Good Kings Bad Kings’ is the first novel by the acclaimed US playwright Susan Nussbaum, and is the winner of the 2012 Pen/ Bellweather Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, a prize founded by the novelist Barbara Kingsolver. The novel is set in the Illinois Learning and Life Skills Center (ILLC), which is referred to by those ‘in the know’ as ‘illsee’ - with the emphasis on ‘ill’. 

ILLC is a nursing home for disabled young people, and its name is a complete misnomer. The young people sent there are not taught ‘life skills’, but merely removed from mainstream society, and subjected to the whims of their ‘caregivers’ (the ‘good kings, bad kings’ of the title). These range from the sadistic ex-prison guard, Louie, to the home’s bus driver Ricky Hernandez, who tries his best to mitigate Louie’s cruelty to his favourite victim, Pierre Washington.

The novel is an impassioned and eloquent broadside against institutionalisation, showing clearly that it is an unequal relationship in which abuses can happen and can just as easily go unnoticed.  One resident is raped by a staff member, and another dies after being left alone in the shower and trying to push himself away from the scalding hot water, but no real change occurs until one teenage resident - the vibrant Yessinia Lopez - sits outside the front of the building with a poster which reads ‘THIS PLACE ABUSE AND KILL CHILDREN’ (sic). The media and a disability rights organisation pick up the story, and the novel ends on an optimistic note.

I did have a few concerns about the use of language in the novel. For example, on the first page Yessinia describes herself as ‘physically challenged’, but it becomes increasingly clear that the challenges she faces are not primarily physical. It seems that in the US, terms that represent disability are less clearly defined with regard to their political impact. The healthcare systems, which facilitate institutionalisation – paying for disabled people to live in nursing homes but refusing money to live independently – are only strengthened by terms such as ‘physically challenged’. Such terms tacitly discount any possibility of an impaired individual being rendered disabled by oppressive social constructs and relationships, and locate the ‘problem’ solely within the impaired individual’s own body.  

I was also somewhat annoyed by the ‘Questions for Discussion’ at the end of the book. Asking such questions as ‘Is it unusual to hear disabled characters tell their own stories? … How might this impact the way you view disabled people in real life?’ clearly assumes that the reader of the novel will not be disabled.

Nevertheless, it is unusual to hear disabled characters tell their own stories, and Susan Nussbaum is to be applauded for bringing important matters to public attention in such an engaging and powerful way.
Highly recommended. 

Good Kings, Bad Kings is available for £6.29 via Oneworld Publications


Colin Hambrook

19 May 2014

Yes, Susan Nussbaum is a disabled person, Debs. Her website says of her: "She won the 2012 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction for her novel Good Kings Bad Kings. Two of her plays have been published: Mishuganismo in the anthology Staring Back: The Disability Experience from the Inside Out and No One As Nasty in Beyond Victims and Villains: Contemporary Plays by Disabled Playwrights. She is most interested in creating authentic disabled characters and all of her plays, as well as her novel, feature disabled characters prominently.

As a disability rights activist, Nussbaum started one of the earliest groups for girls with disabilities, the Empowered Fe Fes. For her work with disabled girls over the years, she was named as one of 50 Visionaries Who are Changing Your World by the Utne Reader in 2008.

Deborah Caulfield

8 May 2014

It's not clear from this review if the author is disabled. This matters; whose voice is it, actually?

My experience of institutionalisation is that the worst of it happens below the radar.

I haven't read the book but this review suggests that rape is used as a plot device, to perhaps shock the reader into taking notice, to sensationalise, because this is what people associate with bad things. I wonder if is this maybe counter-productive.

Oppression is dull; not much to report on a daily basis. Just the daily grind of a life too unimportant to send up a flare, even if one is provided, which it generally isn't.

Oppression is hard to measure. Those who are most oppressed are too oppressed to know they are oppressed. So we'll never hear from them.

Is this a book I should read?

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