There's twenty-seven men here,
Mostly black, brown and poor,
Most of 'em are guilty,
Who are you to say for sure? --Steve Earle
Sometimes you just read the right book at the right time. For me, that book is True Notebooks by Mark Salzman. I'm not going to push the issue too much, because I got to experience this book as a one-day read on a snow day, a circumstance that I know some of my colleagues would not have been able to enjoy.
But it is a great book in a modern sense. Salzman, a bestselling author, is "coerced" into teaching creative writing at a juvenile detention facility in California. Most of the students are murderers. All are children who have been tried as adults.
The book is a first person rendering of a year with these kids, as Salzman grows into his role as their teacher and mentor. Much of the book consists of the inmates' writings, their ruminations on their incarcerated circumstances and how that weighs on their psyches.
It is a brilliant, low-key read. I claim brilliance because how many books out there give a reader the understanding of what it is like to be young and in prison, probably for life?
How many books make such characters human rather than stereotype, so that their stories rise above the simple American understanding of our minorities consigned to prison?
And that's why True Notebooks is the right book at the right time. At least for me. In a month and a year when America is struggling with understanding why so many of its "minority" citizens are in prison, to read this book and to hear the stories behind why these men are in, well, that is essential, I'd say.
Salzman's book doesn't explain away their crimes, doesn't justify them, certainly doesn't apologize for them. It just humanizes them.
Most of us don't live in a world where wedding receptions end in violence, where gang obligations dictate our behavior and survival, where we must thoughtlessly engage in self-destructive acts on the "outs" that, when prosecuted, land us in prison. Because we don't, there is a large segment of our own society that doesn't understand; Salzman's book forces us to acknowledge that this segment exists.
And while it is difficult to call the young men caught up in that world "victims," the fact remains that these young men both rely on their lack of choice and castigate themselves for the choices that they feel they had and have to make.
But, most of all, the book is about writing. The young men that Salzman works with all work towards self-actualization through the words that they put on paper. Through direct description, anecdote, metaphor, and analogy, they attempt to come to terms with their circumstances. That is difficult, nearly impossible. Imagine being young and uneducated and still trying put into words what it is like to spend years in prison, to understand those aspects of life that you may never experience again, to come to terms with the confined, restricted life you may live until the end of your days, or at least beyond your vital years.
The book also humanizes the people who work in prisons, their understanding of the limitations of these young men, while they also get caught up in lives and futures of the charges under their care. To be a juvenile prison guard is to be a mixture of resignation about what is to come (real prison) and a desire to offer these boys a respite from that future, however brief.
Lastly, the book, without preaching, shows us how the criminal justice system lets these men down, with lengthy months until trial, subpar lawyers, and by-the-book judges who ignore the growth that the young men (at least as Salzman's writers) have achieved behind bars.
Maybe that is as it should be. The book doesn't push you one way or the other. While you may tend to sympathize with these boys, Salzman has no qualms about reminding you what they have done. Their plights are a double tragedy-- for their victims and for them. And that is worth both reading and future consideration.