Good Kings Bad Kings
By Susan Nussbaum
Algonquin Books, 2013
Never before have I read a book in which people with disabilities were portrayed with such multi-dimensional identities as in Good Kings Bad Kings.
Told in seven alternating voices, this debut novel explores life in a Chicago-based nursing facility for disabled teens and young adults called the Illinois Learning and Life Skills Center (ILLC). The book opens with Yessina Lopez, a spunky teenager who dreams of life outside the ILLC. Joanne Madsen is the data entry clerk and the only disabled person who works in the facility. Ricky Hernandez is an ILLC driver who also deals with kids who act up and forms a relationship with Joanne. Michelle Volkmann is a recruiter, who seeks out kids to bring into the home, and feels bad about her job. Teddy Dobbs is a resident known for always wearing a suit. Together these voices, and two more, create an intimate portrait of life in this home.
This book is not very story driven, but there is a lot of drama in the pages. Kids are put in the institution, kids are removed from classrooms, kids are left alone in hot showers that they cannot get out of. The setting, and many of the stories are bleak, but I enjoyed spending time with this unique cast of characters and felt like each chapter read like a journal entry—shedding light on each character’s life view. Nussbaum also takes on a range of difficult issues – disability, gender discrimination, rape, sexual politics/identity, poverty and racism. And although the book becomes political, clearly advocating against for-profit nursing homes like the ILLC, it is a rare book in which disabled people are the center of a story and are portrayed as people with needs, feelings and desires that have nothing to do with their disabilities.
Nussbaum, a playwright, won the 2012 PEN/Bellwether Prize, which promotes fiction that addresses issues of social justice, for this book. There have been a lot of interesting reviews of this book and interviews with her published this summer.