Sunday, December 14, 2014

Kings - And The Taking of Power: give yourself the gift of this book

Photo description: Reproduction of book cover showing two hands, one gold coloured with the text 'good kings' over the other red coloured with the text 'bad kings'.
Several months ago, browsing through my local book store, my eyes were pulled to a book called, Good Kings Bad Kings. I picked it up read the back, purchased it, brought it home and put it on the 'will read one day file.' I wanted to buy it because its a book wherein almost every character has a disability and those characters speak in their own voices (rather than being spoken about by other characters). I want to support this kind of literature.


I was wary, for two reasons. First, authors, in my experience, seldom get the voice right in books written with disabled characters, much in the same way that non-disabled actors often get mannerisms but seldom get 'voice' when playing someone with a disability. I was also concerned because the cover told me that the book had won an award for 'socially engaged fiction.' Socially engaged fiction, oh my. It's a book that's supposed to be good for me. Duty done, bought. Reading it, though, that's another story.

And as it turns out, it is another story, indeed.

Joe and I were heading out to Boston for a few days work and I was almost finished the book I'd been reading. Joe asked what other book I wanted and I told him to grab the top book on the pile stuffed at the far end of my bedside table's bottom shelf. He grabbed, Good Kings Bad Kings. When I pulled it out of my wheelchair bag and saw what had been brought, I almost protested.

Then. I started to read. The author of the book is ambitious. She sets the story in a nursing home full of kids, with a variety of different disabilities, who are all under the age of 21. That is one wild set of idiosyncratic voices coming from entirely different ways of experiencing the world. The book is set up in chapters, each from the point of view, and in the voice of, a different character. One of the characters presented early on in the book shocked me.

Shocked me.

I knew her.

I knew her intimately.

She expressed thoughts and ideas about her experience with disabilities using words that I have used. My experience of disability has, at points, mirrored hers. I couldn't help it. I flipped to the back of the book to read about the author. I never do that. I don't read forwards and I don't read 'about the author' ... so, I'm allowed my own idiosyncratic approach to reading a book.

Meet Susan Nussbaum:

Picture description: Author Susan Nussbaum seated in a power wheelchair.,
 Now, though I don't know, I'm guessing that Ms Nussbaum doesn't want to be known simply as a 'disabled author.'  However, in this case, with this book, that actually helps. I suddenly knew how she got so much right. Forgive me for saying this but there are experiences had by people with disabilities that I don't think people without disabilities can grasp. And here were some of those experiences, on the page, in a story, about disabled characters with real voices. I need to admit here that I was caught, on more than one occasion with ablist assumptions in my head that got smacked down right smartly.

My only quibble is that I found that the voices of those with intellectual disabilities were, from my years of experience in working with people who experience that disability, sometimes forced and rang a little false. Not always. But enough to cause me notice.

Driving by any nursing home, one might see a sedate looking place, and one might imagine it full of compassionate staff giving wonderful care to grateful recipients. You will never think that again after reading this book. Not only did Ms Nussbaum get the voices right, she also captured the hierarchy of care and the abuse of power, in a myriad of ways, that go on under the guise of care providing. Those sections of the book were letter perfect, and, of course, the hardest to read.

There is also triumph in this book. But not the typical triumph you read about when books are peopled with those who have disability. Mount Everest isn't scaled once. The triumph here isn't over disability, its over ....

Nope. Not gonna tell you. For that, read the book.

Are you a disabled reader? Got some disabled reader friends? Got some non-disabled friends who are into books with fully fleshed out characters? If so, this might be the perfect choice for a gift for yourself or for someone else.

It was for me, simply because, about midway through the book, I felt completely gifted this experience. I may have bought the book. But, really, Susan Nussbaum gave it to me. Like, I'm guessing, she wants to give it to you.


Julie Johnson said...

I've been reading your blog for a long, long time...years now. I appreciate the insight. You make me think about disability in new ways...and after 41 years of living in varying stages of disability, you'd think I'd be about done with new ideas! I also wanted to share a link for a book, my own book in fact: It's been more than five years in the making and now it's time for the story to be out in the open. It's a story of going your own way, challenging expectations and finding faith in yourself.

Anonymous said...

Yeah! Another reader for Good Kings, Bad Kings! I adore this book. It so precisely demonstrates why institutions—even the "best," most "humane" institutions, are not compatible with human beings: not for the workers, not for the inmates.

I'd love to hear more about how the characters with intellectual disabilities don't quite ring true for you.

It's available in regular print, audio (from Audible) and ebooks (ePub and Kindle).

If I guided an introduction to disability for students, teachers, lawyers, nursing home administrators, anyone—I'd love to use this book as a conversation starter.

Shaya said...

Yeah, I really loved Good Kings, Bad Kings as well.

And Julie, thanks for pointing us to your book! I added it to my "to-read" list on Goodreads.

I think my favorite part was about how sexuality was portrayed. Disabled characters had relationships and casual hook ups and sweet first kisses and none of it was portrayed as a big deal or inspiration porn. The way sexuality is portrayed feels like as much a victory for disability fiction as it does for young adult fiction, though in different ways. For disability fiction, it does a fabulous job of disrupting the cultural assumption that all disabled people are asexual and undatable. And in most young adult fiction there is only one kind of romance--obsessive, passionate, all-consuming romance which is not how it is portrayed here.

My one critique is that I did feel like it came off as a bit preachy--that she was clearly driving at a political point instead of letting the reader come to their own conclusions. And I agree with the disability justice point she is making but I would have appreciated a complex character who is advocating for the nursing home. The bureaucrat woman came off as a bit flat.

Thanks for your review. I'm always looking for more good disability fiction!

Rhysan said...

Does the book cover a range of disabilities (ie, developmental, cognitive, physical, etc)? Asking because I have two developmental disabilities and it's hard to find books that cover that portion of the disability spectrum, because while there's some overlap between developmental and physical disabilities, there's also some variance in the experiences. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the recommendation, book on order and I can't wait to read it.

Dave Hingsburger said...

Rhysan, the book presents a group of people with differing disabilities. I can't promise you'll find yourself in these pages, but I'm fairly certain you might glimpse yourself. My exact disability isn't here either but the disability experience, for me, truly is.

Anonymous said...

Added to my "To Read" list — thanks for the recommendation, Dave.

Anonymous said...

Wow the book arrived I read it I loved it. I can't wait to have a friend read it so we can talk about it. Thank you for the recommendation.