Good Kings Bad Kings is a PEN/Bellwether prize winning novel from Susan Nussbaum. It won in the category of socially engaged fiction. The story follows a number of characters – different chapters from different points of view tell the story. Nussbaum is able to effectively change tone and voice with each character.
The main setting of the novel is the ILLC – effectively a nursing home for kids and teens with disabilities. This is the place kids are sent when they have no where else to go – they can’t afford private assistance and maybe don’t even have a family or their support.
Nussbaum is a playwright who has been celebrated for her honest voice, and in this, her debut novel, her voice feels exactly that, no matter which character she’s inhabiting. I wasn’t sure how much she’d tug on the heart strings in this novel and was a little wary, but I liked the idea of the multiple points of view, and the characters sounded interesting.
There’s Yessenia, a tough-skinned teen recently out of Juvie – it’s only a few pages in that you realize she’s in a wheelchair. Teddy, another teen living in the ILLC, dreams of having his own place one day. Joanne, a data-entry clerk who starts working at the ILLC – she’s the only disabled adult working in the place. There are other characters, and the ways their lives weave in and out of each other’s are interesting.
This story could easily slip into being sickeningly sweet, glaringly archetypically obvious, or heart-wrenchingly unbearable. But it doesn’t. While it was a criticism of institutions and group homes, it was really about the characters, the teens, the adults, and their own ways of dealing with the world.