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Good Kings Bad Kings by Susan Nussbaum

Good Kings Bad Kings
by Susan Nussbaum

Format: Hardback, 294 pgs.
Published: May 28th 2013 by Algonquin Books
Genre: Literature, fiction

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"This powerful and inspiring debut is the 2012 winner of Barbara Kingsolver s PEN/Bellwether Prize for fiction. Told in alternating perspectives by a varied and vocal cast of characters, Nussbaum s novel pulls back the curtain to reveal the complicated and funny and tough life inside the walls of an institution for juveniles with disabilities. From Yessenia Lopez, who dreams of her next boyfriend and of one day of living outside those walls, to Teddy, a resident who dresses up daily in a full suit and tie, to Mia, who guards a terrifying secret, to Joanne, the new data-entry clerk who suddenly finds herself worrying about each and every kid, Nussbaum has crafted a multifaceted portrait of a way of life hidden from most of us. In this isolated human warehouse on Chicago s South Side, friendships are forged, trust is built, and love affairs begin. And it s in their alliances that the residents ultimately find the strength to bond together, resist their mistreatment, and fight back. -Goodreads "


“‘I can be a good king or I can be a bad king,’” (135)

I found this work wonderfully told as we’re shown the hardships of the crippled –ahem– crips, in society. First, I admit I was really confused as to why a gang would be brought into this a story of this context, but then I came to realize that crips are short for crippled, and I stopped worrying about that. Reading through this novel may have begun iffy and scattered, but as the different POV’s became more focused, I understood the author’s intent of telling this story of the different abuses (may it be physical or mental) that go on within a crippled’s life, and the concept of the title, Good Kings Bad Kings. These ‘Kings’ are those who are over the care of crippled youths and how their actions (be it good, bad or even in-between) influence the youths’ outcome in life. 

“They see a group of teenage people standing together anywhere else, they’d be arrested for being gangbangers. They see a bunch of disable people and think we’re selling lemonade. Where is the respect?” (250)

The book begins and ends with Yessenia, in my opinion, the more strong-minded of the group. I believe she’s the fort of the book as she not only watches everything and everyone around her, but she lives through the events with them. I began to love her attitude about things and how being in a wheelchair never stopped her from doing the things she wanted to do. A lot of times throughout the book, I forgot that she was even in a chair, because her personality and strong will outshines everything else. Yessie sees and tells things the way it is, which makes her character lovable, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t hurt too. She’s still in an ongoing journey of dealing with grief and losing her Tía Nene.
Watching Mia go through the pain and struggles she had to endure was heartbreaking, but I loved watching her grow and come out of her bubble, especially towards the end, where she found the will and determination to become more independent. Her love, Teddy, is another strong and confident character who has dreams of having his own apartment. His will to be more independent and his compassion towards his friends in ILLC helped make him into some sort of tragic hero in all of this. 

“I just don’t want the kind of career where you have to do things that–whatever. That you don’t think you should do. If that’s possible.” (278)

The adults POV in this novel– Jimmie, Ricky, Joanne and Michelle– are who I would consider Good Kings, although it might not be apparent to them right away. Michelle starts off only thinking about money, but it is when she visits and inputs herself into the equation, that she comes to realize how ruinous her job was, and how much it hurt people. Jimmie, Ricky and Joanne all work at ILLC and we learn about their background and what drives them to be truly dedicated at their job of helping care for the handicapped youth. Joanne, being physically handicapped herself, is obsessive over crippled rights which gets passed on to the students and becomes a great factor as this novel’s catalyst. The one’s of who I would consider Bad Kings are displayed as abusive uncaring caregivers. Louis, Jerry and Candy are among these as their brutal and illegal actions contribute towards the problem of “The System.”

“If you show these kids the slightest bit of attention, they’ll become your best friend. They’re like sunflowers and you’re the sun.” (102-3)

In all, I found this novel as a revelation in the way we think of the disabled. I admittedly never gave much thought to the lives led by crippled youth, but Good Kings Bad Kings have opened my eyes to see new depths. Susan Nussbaum really carves out each individual character with her writing style of relaying in the style of each person’s voice. It’s in giving each character a voice that provide this novel credence and strength towards those who may have felt lost.

First Line: “My tía Nene said 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, don’t worry.” (1)

Last Line: “It was Jimmie.” (294)

“Then they will marshal their resources and nervously reach out to shake my gimpy hand and smile enthusiastically while they mentally feed my résumé to the shredder.” (8)

“They think they should have seen signs. Maybe we were all criminally oblivious. But in a way, I think it was bound to happen.” (173)

ARC provided by LibraryThing via Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

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