Book Review: Good Kings Bad Kings

Good Kings Bad Kings

By Susan Nussbaum

Copyright 2013, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

373 Braille pages


When a book opens with a teenage girl in a wheelchair shoving another teenage girl in a wheelchair to the pavement, you know you’re in for a rocky ride. Susan Nussbaum’s novel Good Kings Bad Kings smacks readers right in the conscience as she weaves together an important message about disability, greed and America’s failing care facilities.

Meet Yessie. She is already in the “time-out” punishment room on her second day at the Illinois Learning and Life Skills Center (ILLC) when the story begins. A tough, motherless sixteen-year-old, Yessie was raised to defend her Puerto Rican identity, and taught that three is the magic number.

“…and when three things happen to you that are so, so bad and you feel like the whole wide world is just throwing up on your new shoes,” she says, “don’t worry. Your bad luck is about to change.”

But Yessie’s “number three” has delivered her to the ILLC. She is less of a commodity now, and simply a costly burden. As with the other 80 teen residents, Yessie is not only disabled, she is critically dependent upon houseparents and teachers whose personalities may be kind or twisted, whose desires may be innocent or dastardly. Like the inhabitants of any small kingdom, their fates are forever at the mercy of good kings and bad.

Raw and gritty, Nussbaum’s language realistically channels the voices of ILLC residents, staff members, a bus driver, even a recruiter. And while juggling the various characters was a challenge for me at first, I found Nussbaum’s technique dramatically effective. She skillfully crafts layer upon vivid layer to set the tone—Yessie’s best friend Cheri disappears without warning, Pierre’s obsession with food doesn’t compare to his need for Ricky’s protection—and as tension builds, the action drives you deeper and deeper into yourself, until your heart wants to explode.

Susan Nussbaum is a playwright, novelist and longtime disability rights activist. Good Kings Bad Kings earned her the 2012 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, and, as she writes, she is most interested in creating authentic disabled characters because “When I became a wheelchair-user in the late ’70s, all I knew about being disabled I learned from reading books and watching movies, and that scared the shit out of me.”

“Good Kings Bad Kings” is not an easy read, but I urge you to take it on. As electrically charged as modern society, this book ignites disability awareness like nothing I’ve ever read.

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