Stephen King’s The Institute tells the story of a disparate group of children with talents similar to those exhibited by The Shining‘s Danny Torrance and Firestarter‘s Charlie McGee. All of them have been violently kidnapped from their respective homes and imprisoned together in the titular facility, which is run by a secret government agency. Worse still, everything about the place has been carefully designed to break the children down and bend them to the will of its abominable director. But, against all odds, there is one especially brilliant boy determined to bust out and expose the whole operation. It might seem like the author has taken a “ripped from the headlines” approach here, but King insists that much of the news about U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE’s) separation of migrant children from their families — not to mention the conditions of their detention — came to light only as he was working on rewrites of the book. As he told the hosts of The View when it was first released: “Sometimes life comes along and imitates art instead of the other way around.” At the same time, Trump is mentioned at several points and many relevant themes are explored throughout the book. These include, but are not limited to, borders and boundaries; national security; international cooperation and competition; extrajudicial killing and imprisonment; sacrifice zones; “fake news”; and the milk of human kindness, or a lack thereof. If The Institute eerily anticipates the horrors of the current administration’s family separation policy, it might have something to do with the author’s unusually clear-eyed perspective on his country. On top of that, King is writing very near the top of his game here: not only is this an especially involving and occasionally quite thrilling story, but it also includes some of the most winning child characters the author has ever written — and he’s written more than a few of them in his career. (I dare you not to become emotionally involved with the plight of “The Avester,” for example.) Opinions about King’s late-period output certainly vary, but there are more than enough virtues here to satisfy even the most ardent detractors; The Institute is a genuinely outstanding title from one of the great living storytellers.
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