Susan Nussbaum has already won the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction for this, her first novel, Good Kings Bad Kings. The Bellwether Prize was created by Barbara Kingsolver to honor writing that addresses issues of social justice and the impact of culture and politics on human relationships. It is now administered by PEN America.
Previous winners of this prize include Hillary Jordan for Mudbound (which also won a 2009 Alex Award), Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron and The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi Durrow. All three have teen appeal, and this one is no different.
Nussbaum’s award was announced at a BookExpo program last year this time, which was attended by all three of the former winners as well as Barbara Kingsolver. It was quite a stellar group. BookPage wrote up a brief description.
Why not a starred review? I struggled with that decision. This is an important book, and one teens will be drawn to. But it can be a hard read. The utter vulnerability of these characters, the injustice of the way they are treated, and the harm that comes to more than one of them because of that mistreatment is infuriating, and made me put down the book more than once. I picked it back up because the character voices are so good. And the combination of adult and teen voices gives the novel real depth. Nussbaum is a playwright and it shows. The lack of a star is really because, as the book progresses, its focus can shift to the issues facing the disabled in our country, sometimes at the expense of the story.
But don’t get me wrong — you will be seeing this novel on our “Best of the Year so far” list in a few weeks, and it deserves to find a place on many library shelves.
Adult/High School–In her PEN/Bellwether Prize-winning debut novel, Nussbaum introduces the “inmates” and caregivers of the Illinois Learning and Life Skills Center. ILLC is a nursing facility for adolescents in South Side Chicago that has been taken over by a private firm interested only in the bottom line. All of the patients are disabled, most physically, but many suffer from learning or psychiatric issues as well. Each character tells his or her own story in alternating chapters with lively, diverse, authentic voices. Mia has been living at ILLC since the age of 11, when she was rescued from her father’s abuse. Her boyfriend, Teddy, is 22 and itching to live in an apartment of his own. Their sweet relationship falls apart when Mia is raped by a houseparent. Ricky is a kind driver who becomes invested in the patients. He starts seeing Joanne, who is disabled herself, and works at ILLC as a data-entry clerk. She lives on her own, in contrast to the teens who aren’t even granted power chairs. Yessenia was doing fine until her beloved tía Nene died and she landed in juvie after attacking a girl at school. Yessie rallies the others to fight for change after understaffing causes life-threatening errors and neglect. When the characters are at the forefront, this is an inspiring read. At times, the issues overtake the story and it becomes a bit didactic. But overall, Nussbaum will have readers rooting for these brave, vulnerable teens to fight for better lives.–Angela Carstensen, Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City