In this debut memoir, a woman aims to cultivate learning in youths who, for whatever reason, have ended up behind bars.
In this series of vignettelike reflections, Zeman, a prison librarian, moves skillfully among a handful of literary modes, mixing journalism and memoir and weaving together character sketches and sociological facts with ease. Her look at imprisoned young adults is as much a paean to the power of the written word as it is a testament to the sorry state of juvenile incarceration in the United States. It contrasts the starkness of the legal system with the blurred, bruised lives of the young inmates; for many of them, the books on Zeman’s cart become a solace in their suffocating cells; at one point, an inmate tells her, “I try to read something that helps me escape.” Piece by piece, an engaging narrative with a veritable cast of characters emerges; the episodes’ moments of insight eventually create a panoptic picture of what the prison system looks like to young people. The book details their attempts to study for their GEDs and shows how they absorb the redemptive qualities of literary culture along the way. The author, who admits to her own “optimism and Pollyanna enthusiasm” in the face of pessimists, tells the stories with a well-paced combination of reportage, confession, meditation and social critique. She looks at her characters’ resilience from multiple perspectives, exploring the psychologies of the imprisoned as well as the people who administer corrective facilities. The book also contains well-chosen quotes from such authors as Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot and Jhumpa Lahiri, along with a list of sources.
A sensitive, compassionate and smart retelling of prison stories “so real, so starkly real, so brutally honest, they seem like our own.”