Author: S.F. Henson
Publication Date: September 5, 2017
Nate was eight the first time he stabbed someone; he was eleven when he earned his red laces—a prize for spilling blood for “the cause.” And he was fourteen when he murdered his father (and the leader of The Fort, a notorious white supremacist compound) in self-defense, landing in a treatment center while the state searched for his next of kin. Now, in the custody of an uncle he never knew existed, who wants nothing to do with him, Nate just wants to disappear.
Then he meets Brandon, a person The Fort conditioned Nate to despise on sight. But Brandon’s also the first person to treat him like a human instead of a monster. Brandon could never understand Nate’s dark past, so Nate keeps quiet. And it works for a while. But all too soon, Nate’s worlds crash together, and he must decide between his own survival and standing for what’s right, even if it isn’t easy. Even if society will never be able to forgive him for his sins.
Devils Within is my kind of book; potentially controversial and mind-bending. I enjoyed it in large part because the main character isn’t safely sympathetic, his problems superficial. No, our protagonist, Nathaniel, just got out of the KKK like hate cult he had been raised in by murdering his father, the leader. Sound a bit far fetched? This book is loosely based on very true, very messed up events. More on that later.
Devils Within follows Nate as he struggles to adjust to a world with diversity and little violence. He’s a good guy, and the author tries very hard to balance out his unintentionally racist remarks with sympathy and understanding. After all, how would Nate know the proper word to call someone of Asian decent in a creepy hate cult? He wouldn’t! And here in lies the part of this book that bothered me.
The author wasn’t daring enough.
Yes, it made me uncomfortable when Nathaniel asked his classmate about interracial dating or when he called his uncle’s girlfriend Oriental. But, likely in an effort by the author to mitigate that discomfort, every time Nate said something like that, he second and third guessed if the word was okay. When he doesn’t know the names of the basketball team and called one of the players “The Mexican Kid” in his head, he instantly stopped, stating that he doesn’t want to label someone by their race.
Okay, that’s valid, I guess. But isn’t that just a little too self aware for a guy who had been sheltered in a white supremacy cult his whole life?
In this new age of literature, authors must be really careful about what they write. Novelists have been simultaneously chastised for the lack of diversity in their books as well as the wrongness of writing non-white characters as a white author (What defines white? Is it Irish? Italian? Jewish? Of course, that is a whole other discussion). Writing a well balanced novel that fits these qualifications sometimes can feel like juggling ten cats while walking a tightrope that’s on fire.
So I can understand how this author might want to do everything possible to stop her readers from feeling uncomfortable, and being labeled a racist. However, it is my opinion, as a reader who picked up this book in order to gain a whole new perspective on the world, that she wasn’t daring enough. If I didn’t want to be challenged as a reader, I wouldn’t have picked up this book! I want to feel uncomfortable, I want to experience this situation as it would be, not through rosy glasses.
Other than that, however, Devils Within was a very enjoyable read. Like many standalones, the ending felt rushed and a tad unsatisfying. However, it was a fairly realistic ending and for that I am grateful.
I think it is important to note the story this novel was based on. In 2011, a ten year old boy named Joseph Hall shot his father in the head with a gun while he was sleeping. His father had been a prominent white supremacist and had been reportedly abusing the boy. Young Joseph Hall was sentenced to prison until he turned 23. The Supreme Court refused to review this case, despite the outcry that a ten year old boy who had been subjected to abuse and hatred and who had waived his Miranda Rights without, perhaps, fully understanding the consequences, should not have been tried in the way that he was.
The story here: https://nationalpost.com/news/disabled-boy-10-who-killed-abusive-neo-nazi-dad-locked-up-until-age-23-after-u-s-court-ruling
Devils Within reflects this story, and the heavy judgments of both the press and the people on a situation that would otherwise have been viewed differently if it weren’t for the main character’s white supremacist past. If ten year old Joseph Hall had not been associated with white supremacy would his ruling had been different? Should a young person’s upbringing be factored in when using past violent behavior to justify a court decision? And, lastly, would sending the ten year old to grow up in Juvenile Detention make him into a functioning adult, or harm him as much as his early childhood had?
For presenting these unique questions alone, this novel deserves a four star rating.