Tananarive Due’s new novel The Reformatory (Saga, Aug.) opens with this dedication: “For Robert Stephens, my great-uncle who died at the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida, in 1937. He was fifteen years old.”
Due learned of Stephens’s existence 10 years ago, when she got a call from the Florida state attorney general’s office telling her she likely had a relative buried at the Dozier School, a reform school operated by the state from 1900 to 2011 that has become notorious for its horrific abuse of students. This brutality resulted in the deaths of dozens of boys who were then buried on the premises. After getting the call, Due and her father traveled to the site and attended a meeting of survivors.
Speaking via Zoom from her home office in Upland, Calif., clad in black and with posters for several of her works framed on the wall behind her, Due recalls the meeting: “I heard the firsthand testimony of survivors, Black and white, and the things that they had been through,” she says. “Some of those stories I will just never forget.”
Due mentions a man who spoke about receiving a beating so violent that the school physician had to remove pieces of his clothing from the lash marks on his back. “And this was a white man,” she notes, “which I say because if you’re talking about the segregation era, the 1960s and the 1950s, if they’re treating white students like that—white prisoners—you can only imagine how they’re treating the Black prisoners.”
Learning of her personal connection to the institution inspired Due to write The Reformatory, a ghost story that fictionalizes the experience of her great-uncle at Dozier. It’s set in 1950, when 12-year-old Black boy Robert Stephens is convicted of the crime of kicking a white boy. After being sent to the Gracetown Reformatory for Boys, Stephens finds himself under the jurisdiction of the sadistic Superintendent Haddock.
The school is also crawling with the “haints,” or ghosts, of boys who were killed there, and Haddock soon discovers that Robert has a gift for spotting them. Robert, who’s tasked with catching the haints (who are tormenting Haddock), finds himself torn between the threat posed by Haddock and his wish to do right by the spirits of these dead boys by setting them free.
Stephens isn’t the only relative of Due’s who appears in The Reformatory. The book’s other protagonist, Robert’s sister Gloria, is named for Due’s mother, Patricia Gloria Stephens Due, with whom Due wrote the 2003 memoir Freedom in the Family: A Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights.
Of her mother, who died in 2012, Due says, “She was always defiant. That’s how she ended up in the civil rights movement. So I thought, if this happened to her, if this happened to her brother, what would she have done?” In The Reformatory, Gloria exhausts every possible legal channel to try to free her brother from the school, and when that fails, she hatches a risky plan to help him run away.
Due’s father, John Dorsey Due Jr., a civil rights lawyer, inspired the character of a crusading young lawyer who works with Gloria to try to free Robert. He also helped Due develop the book’s legal scenes.
Mass incarceration is a subject that has been important to Due for years. She notes that this issue is rooted in poverty and bias and recalls a time she herself was nearly arrested for having an expired inspection sticker on her car. But instead of tackling the subject in a nonfiction book—which Due notes has been done many times already—she chose to explore it through the lens of speculative fiction, turning a painful history into a ghost story.
“My real wish was to create almost a historical fable,” Due says, “but built on reality, where I could raise awareness about the horrible things that happened at the Dozier School and in the Jim Crow South in general.” Using the format of a ghost story also allowed her to put a spotlight on a broken criminal justice system “without retraumatizing readers.”
Due spent seven years writing The Reformatory, largely because of the emotional difficulty of the subject. That’s a long time for a writer who has produced more than a dozen books since her 1995 debut novel, The Between—not to mention screenplays and a graphic novel. At several points, she wondered if the story of the Dozier School had been told enough already, and she considered giving up—particularly when she heard about Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys, which was also based on the school. However, Due’s literary agent, Donald Maass, assured her there was enough room in the market for both books, which tackle the material in markedly different ways, and encouraged her to keep going.
She says the sense of urgency she felt during the pandemic was what finally spurred her to complete The Reformatory, noting, “I was afraid I might die before it was finished.”
Meanwhile, Due’s second short story collection, The Wishing Pool and Other Stories, was published earlier this year by Akashic Books. “Don’t call it a comeback,” she says, laughing, “but it definitely feels like a reemergence.” She feels grateful to be resurfacing in “such a rich and beautiful time in horror, period, but especially in marginalized horror.”
Joe Monti, Due’s editor at Saga Press, has been a fan of Due’s since reading her 2003 novel The Good House, and he says he was thrilled to acquire The Reformatory. “I feel we are in a very dynamic place with fiction that includes elements of horror and the fantastic,” he adds, “as it’s been a way for us as readers to engage with facets of our society more truthfully. And this is a story rooted in Due’s family history—that’s riveting on its own.”
In the end, Due hopes The Reformatory will cause readers to reflect on the current U.S. penal system, commenting that we are “too quick to put humans in cages” and calling the incarceration rate “absolutely shameful.” She would like us to “look not just at what was happening in 1950 and say, ‘Oh, that was horrible,’ but look at what is happening today and say this is horrible, and what can we do?
Emily Flouton is a writer living in Brooklyn.”