Good Kings Bad Kings by Susan Nussbaum

Title: Good Kings Bad Kings
Author: Susan Nussbaum
Genre: Young adult / fiction

Rating: 3.5 / 5

Goodreads | Powell’s


This book takes a look at the institutions that serve the disabled children. This is, I think, a really important subject, and I agree with a lot of what the author is saying in the book; however, the actual book part was sometimes lacking for me.

First, Nussbaum uses seven different narrators to tell the story. And yeah, yeah, didn’t I just give my high rating to a book that uses multiple first-person points of view? Yes. I did. In the case of The Brides of Rollrock Island, Margo Lanagan used narrators from different generations and she stuck with them for dozens, sometimes around 100 pages. She didn’t jump back and forth, back and forth. Each section was written with a depth so that it could have stood alone as a short story. This book? So many changing perspectives. Three pages for character A, five for character B, two for character C, three for character A, seven for character D, etc, etc. Which could still be cool…except that, I don’t know, I feel like Nussbaum used it in a way that weakened character development. I can see why she would want to take this approach–to give a broader perspective and many distinct voices to disability and those affected by it–but, although the reader did get a fairly good impression of the motivations and experiences of the characters, it still seemed to short-change her characterization, most especially the “shifts” of her “dynamic” characters.

Another gripe: this book is sooo heavy handed. And that is where it really lost a lot of its appeal for me. I mean, I am one of those people who are like, “Nuance? For a rape? No thank you” (nuance for dealing with the aftermath, the recovery, the healing–yes; nuance for the act or the rapist? not so much!). But this book was just…drenched in preachiness. As an example, the whole “system vs. individual” responsibility was spelled out really simply for the reader: “Joanne always thinks it’s the System. And I agree! But the thing is, to me–does that, like, erase that people are responsible for their choices? […] I can say to myself, ‘It’s the System,’ but does that mean I couldn’t do anything about anything? To change things?” (page 200). Maybe it’s part of being a “young adult” book, and if I was reading this book 12 or 14 years ago, I probably would have been like, “wooow!!! the insight!!” But, well, I didn’t actually even know this was a “young adult” book until I came and found its page on Goodreads when I was halfway through it. And it’s also true that not all “young adult” books hit you around the head so thoroughly (again, see Brides of Rollrock Island).

Also, there was a passage in the book that made me wonder if Nussbaum was slut-shaming one of the characters. The least sympathetic (corporate climber) character, who is portrayed as being air-headed, petty, and unaware/in denial, catches gonorrhea (even though she was using a condom) and it has absolutely no bearing on the story whatsoever. It’s mentioned for two paragraphs and never again. I think it’s just supposed to be something we’re supposed to laugh at her about, like, “Haha that dumb lady got an STD! Maybe you shouldn’t have been having casual sex, stupid!” I could be wrong, but combined with the previously mentioned lack of nuance in the rest of the book, it kinda made me “?!”

But there are definitely good things about the book too. It shines a light on the institutionalization (incarceration?) of disabled children, especially the most vulnerable in terms of money and parental resources. It shows healthy relationships among that group as well as a healthy relationship between a disabled and an abled person. The high point in this book for me was probably the author interview in the back, where Nussbaum talks about how society treats disabled people (Million Dollar Baby? The lady that movie was arguably based on is still alive but they “mercy kill” her in the movie, gross). I also appreciate that she addressed the way she writes in dialect for characters of color. The book is a very quick read and it is engaging. It’s true that there are not many books out there that deal with disability in a respectful and realistic way, so the book might be worth reading for that feature alone.


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