Devils Within

Book review by
Sandie Angulo Chen, Common Sense Media
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Painful, powerful story about rejecting white supremacy.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Teen readers will learn about domestic white supremacist groups: how they operate, how they attempt to just be white patriots, how they indoctrinate people and find ways to hurt people who are not white and Christian.

Positive Messages

Positive messages include: importance of recognizing all people are human beings and no race is above another; that only by getting to know and care about people unlike ourselves do we start to see beyond stereotypes. Challenges us to think of racism beyond the extremism exemplified by the white supremacists at the Fort -- to think of the many small ways that racism affects all of us, but particularly nonwhite, non-Christian minorities, on a daily basis.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Nathaniel overcomes so much to finally be free of the Fort's hold on his life. He processes and moves past the racist ideology he was taught growing up. He learns to be friends with different kinds of people, particularly his black friend, Brandon, and his uncle's girlfriend, who's of Asian descent. Nate's uncle learns to deal with his own past and to be a better guardian/caretaker. Brandon is a patient friend and forgives Nate for not telling him the truth.

Violence

Flashbacks to violent confrontations within members of the Fort and between the Fort and random people of color they terrorized (as an initiation and in general): People beaten and even killed. Nate shoots his father in self-defense. Scenes of bloody beatings and ritualized physical punishment/humiliation.

Sex

A few discussions of girls the guys like and of teens kissing/making out.

Language

Infrequent strong language: "s--t," "a--hole," "damn," "N-word" (spelled that way), "Oriental," graffiti of a swastika, yells of "White Power," etc.

Consumerism

iPhone, Toyota Camry, Lexus.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Devils Within is a contemporary realistic novel by S.F. Henson that received the American Library Association's 2018 William C. Morris Honor for best young adult first book. The novel follows Nate, a 16-year-old who killed his father -- the leader of a white supremacist group/compound -- in self-defense. While hiding from his father's minions at the home of an estranged uncle, Nate becomes friends with a nonwhite person for the first time: Brandon, a black classmate. The book, which is inspired by true events around the United States, describes the dogmatic racism white supremacists believe in, as well as the secret violence many domestic white nationalism groups engage in against people of color, Jews, Muslims, etc. It can be difficult to read at times, but it will spark many conversations about race and racism, the difference between pride in European heritage and white supremacy, and more.

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What's the story?

DEVILS WITHIN is the story of 16-year-old Nate, who grew up in a violent white supremacist compound called the Fort and killed his abusive father, the group's dogmatic leader, in self-defense. The courts order Nate into the care of his estranged maternal uncle, who tentatively moves Nate in with him (and his Asian American girlfriend) in their small town down South. Despite Nate's new alias and town, he has recurring nightmares about his father and worries that the Fort will find and kill him. At his new high school, Nate finds an unlikely friend in Brandon, the first black person he's ever gotten to know. But the press and the past (Nate had previously hurt people of color under direct orders from his father) threaten his safety -- and that of his family and new friends.

Is it any good?

S.F. Henson's novel is an important, if heartbreaking, story of what it's like to grow up in the world of white supremacy -- and then desperately try to climb out of it. Devils Within can be difficult to read, because the protagonist, Nate, shares all of the corrosive ideology he was raised believing. Despite being an intimidating teen -- 6-foot-2, muscular -- he's very fragile and emotionally vulnerable after being forced to kill his father, and he's constantly worrying for his safety. His relationship with his only living relative -- his uncle Dell (who was also once a neo-Nazi but now has a serious Asian girlfriend, Bev) -- is strained, and the only seemingly uncomplicated friendship is a new one initiated by an African American classmate, Brandon. At first, Nate is hesitant about befriending Brandon, never having had a friend who wasn't white, but their friendship is the one positive aspect of Nate's life, so naturally Nate can't tell Brandon about his lifelong connection to a white supremacist group.

Henson, who grew up in the Deep South, has been vocal about the fact that most white teens don't grow up around the sort of extreme and overt racism she portrays in the book. But she does believe many white readers will relate to Nate and Brandon's classmates, who don't automatically dismiss or fight against the messages of white power and supremacy the Fort plasters around town. Readers will recognize the classmates and teammates who are fine playing basketball with Brandon but wouldn't want to eat at his house, who could never date anyone who isn't white, or who blame nonwhites, immigrants, etc., for bringing down their community or the country as a whole. Right now, it's important to acknowledge white supremacy in all its forms, from the extreme to the subtle, and Henson does a powerful job exposing the various ways white power manifests itself. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about whether there are any role models in Devils Within. Who are they and what character strengths do they exemplify?

  • The author says events in the book are based on various true stories. How does white supremacy affect American culture? Why is it important to talk about race and other social issues with friends and family? 

  • The author's note discusses how she was brought up around casual racism in the South. Is it better to ignore or confront people who make overtly or even subtly racist comments/jokes? What are the benefits and disadvantages of each approach? What strategies could you use when others use racist language in conversation?

  • What does Nate learn about being friends with people who don't look like him? Why is it important to be friends with and care about all kinds of people?

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