The Reformatory

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Modern Age

The Reformatory
Author: Due, Tananarive
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Time Period: Modern Age
Time Frame: 1950
Geographic Area: North America
Country: United States
Topics: Civil Rights, Great Migration, Jim Crow
Genre: Historical Fantasy
Reading Age: Young Adult, Adult
Format: Novel
Published: 2023

Content Warning
child abuse, violence, sexual abuse (off page but mentioned)

American History > Modern Age > African American History

A gripping, page-turning novel set in Jim Crow Florida that follows Robert Stephens Jr. as he’s sent to a segregated reform school that is a chamber of terrors where he sees the horrors of racism and injustice, for the living, and the dead.

Gracetown, Florida

June 1950

Twelve-year-old Robbie Stephens, Jr., is sentenced to six months at the Gracetown School for Boys, a reformatory, for kicking the son of the largest landowner in town in defense of his older sister, Gloria. So begins Robbie’s journey further into the terrors of the Jim Crow South and the very real horror of the school they call The Reformatory.

Robbie has a talent for seeing ghosts, or haints. But what was once a comfort to him after the loss of his mother has become a window to the truth of what happens at the reformatory. Boys forced to work to remediate their so-called crimes have gone missing, but the haints Robbie sees hint at worse things. Through his friends Redbone and Blue, Robbie is learning not just the rules but how to survive. Meanwhile, Gloria is rallying every family member and connection in Florida to find a way to get Robbie out before it’s too late.

The Reformatory is a haunting work of historical fiction written as only American Book Award–winning author Tananarive Due could, by piecing together the life of the relative her family never spoke of and bringing his tragedy and those of so many others at the infamous Dozier School for Boys to the light in this riveting novel.

Emily's Review

Now and then a book comes along that blows my mind. This book had me riveted, I literally couldn't put it down. It's maybe one of the best historical fiction books I've read this year.

Set in the fictional town of Gracetown, Florida in 1950, we follow 12-year-old Robbie Stephens Jr. and his older sister Gloria. When Robbie kicks a white boy from a prominent family because he made a pass at his sister, he gets 6 months at the Gracetown School for Boys or the reformatory. There are stories about this place that terrify Robbie, and Gloria is determined to do anything she can to get him out.

In alternating storylines we follow Robbie and Gloria. While at the reformatory, Robbie can see haints, spirits who remain where they died. He realizes the true horrors of this place and how dangerous it is. Gloria's storyline is all about the logistics of maneuvering the justice system and how everything is set up for them to fail. While this is a ghost story, the real horror is the Jim Crow south and the terrible things white men were allowed to get away with. The author based this story on a real school where her relative was killed.

This book will make you angry. It will make you cry. It will make you want to hug these boys who were sent to this hell on earth for the most minor of infractions, many of whom never made it back home. This was my first time reading Tananarive Due, and it won't be my last.

Because of how dark this story is and how upsetting, I would recommend it for ages 16+

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