When Good Test Scores Mean You Get to Live with Nurse Ratchet: The Institute

Originally published October 2019

Finally, a school for special abilities that parents won’t fight over or bribe administrators to attend.


Full disclosure – big Stephen King fan here. The likelihood I was going to enjoy “The Institute” was as high as some of the characters’ BDNF scores (more on that in just a minute). Not all King work is for everyone – admittedly I am more into supernatural and less into gore. So it’s important to know where this book falls on the spectrum – and it’s decidedly more of a supernatural thriller. If you stop to think about the gravity of the scenes King depicts though, it’ll give you the full-on willies. People do not die pretty deaths at The Institute.

As with some of King’s other work, the novel starts with a slow introduction to one of several pivotal characters – the first a reluctant hero by the name of Tim Jamieson. (Think Stu in The Stand, Bill in Mr. Mercedes, Jake in 11/22/63). A bit down on his luck after a divorce and loss of a job he loved, he finds his way to DuPray, South Carolina and falls into the old-fashioned role of night knocker for the local police.

From there, the story moves to Minnesota and Luke Ellis, the first of a gaggle of youngsters readers grow to love that sit at the core of The Institute’s plot line – that of kids that are being kidnapped for what are perceived to be extraordinary telekinetic or telepathic capabilities that are identified at birth with a high BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) score.

Luke finds himself waking up one morning in a bedroom not too unlike his own, only to discover he’s The Institute’s newest resident. From there, readers are introduced to a group of TK and TP high-achievers – Kalisha, Nick, George, Iris, Helen, Harry, and sweet little Avery. Held against their will for what their captors think is a well-intentioned, even laudable, goal, this band of heroes know Luke may be their only chance to escape with a life still worth living awaiting them on the other side of the playground fence.

To delve too much further would be to give away a lot of the story, and this was one that had me glued to my book for the entire weekend (I brought it to the grocery store with me so I could continue to read while waiting in line.) I do not want to dampen that experience for anyone. And if the Tim/DuPray storyline seems extraneous at first, I assure you it’s not and will make sense a little more than halfway through the book.

I’ll just say this – if you think you might enjoy a read that takes a group of kids with no business trying to start a rebellion and pits them against some of the most sadistic captors/bosses in an attempt to put an end to some serious evil, then this is the book for you. (Also? I need these kids handling the impeachment inquiry, PRONTO.) Fair warning — there are some pretty awful endings for some pretty good people, so if you are easily upset, you’ll either need to skim or avoid the story altogether. But like other King tales, the battle of good versus is always so compelling. I’ll be thinking about these kids for a good while.

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