The Reformatory is a fantastical, elegant and miraculous delivery of justice for historic atrocities by master of horror Tananarive Due. The NAACP Image-award winner reimagines the deadly abuse that took place at Florida’s Dozier School for Boys—including the tragic experience of the author’s own relative, Robert Stephens, who died in 1937 at the institution—as a 1950s-era tale of ghosts and redemption.
From the start, Due reminds us of the humanity of these children. Twelve-year-old Robert “Robbie” Stephens Jr. lives a hard life marked by striving and discipline, watched over by his 16-year-old sister, Gloria. Their mother is dead and their father, a would-be union organizer, fled to Chicago to find work and escape the Ku Klux Klan. The money he sends home never lasts long. Still, Robert retains his child’s sense of wonder and sweetness, as well as nascent otherworldly abilities he strains to use to connect with his mother. And despite Gloria’s emphasis on discipline, she takes thoughtful care of her brother, trapping wild game after church as a treat or adding smoked pork from a neighbor to their greens “so he could remember the taste of something other than cornmeal and soup.”
Due excels in both style and storytelling, her sentences singing with specificity and creativity. The conflict that changes Robert and Gloria’s lives is simple and fleeting, but Due’s finely honed choreography makes the precise, exacting nature of Jim Crow racial etiquette visible. Here as in every other page of The Reformatory, historical context emerges organically, interwoven through story and character. When white teenager Lyle McCormack’s leering gaze—and overbearing, insistent physical presence—fixes on Gloria as they walk home, Robbie recalls one of the rules his father taught him. “He was never, ever to wink his eye at a white girl or white woman. Foolishness like that can get you killed.” Even though he doesn’t yet fully understand the sexual undertones and dangers implied in his father’s warnings, it makes Robbie see red that the rule doesn’t go both ways. Instinct overrules home training, and in a violation of racial codes several layers deep, “Robert ran toward Lyle McCormack, swinging his foot at the bigger boy’s left knee.”
Due captures every nuance and every horrible, deadly implication of these moments with surgical precision. Red McCormack, Lyle’s infamously vindictive and racist father, sees what happens, and Robbie is soon sent to the reformatory. And Robbie and Gloria’s threatening encounter with Lyle seems bucolic when compared to subsequent ones at the school, a site of institutional cruelty where the souls of Black boys snuffed out too early yearn for family and freedom. There, his ability to see ghosts puts Robbie in an awkward but powerful position. His second sight not only becomes a window to the truth of what happens at the reformatory and what happened to the boys who went missing there, but it also may offer the possibility of salvation.
Due’s humane and meticulously researched retelling reminds us that nothing is scarier than the demons that walk among us. Beautiful and expertly executed, The Reformatory is a horror masterpiece that derives its power from both the magical and the mundane.