Oliver Priddy, as the story opens, is a teenager sentenced to do time in a Pennsylvania boys’ reform school for assaulting his abusive stepfather and committing a robbery. When he becomes the focus of school bully Jimmy Six’s bloody violence, he exacts vengeance by killing Jimmy with a baseball bat—which lands him in Riverview Penitentiary in 1977 to serve a life sentence for murder, with no possibility of parole. But although Middleton keeps his protagonist firmly under lock and key, he also spins Priddy’s seemingly hopeless situation into a tale of strength and perseverance, revealing Priddy’s abusive family history along the way. The inmate radically changes his self-destructive course of conduct after some much-needed introspection and after receiving visits from his brother, his biological father, and his new love, Penelope. He also gets kind words from his fellow inmate Early Greer, who counsels him to “[g]o to school, learn a trade.” He busies himself in the ward’s education department, under the guidance of a volunteer professor. He also faces challenges from sexual predators, as prisoner deaths at the institution mysteriously increase. Despite the dangers, Priddy still manages to educate himself and compare notes with other inmates, such as Champ Burnett, an intimidating prisoner he tutors in math in exchange for protection inside the jailhouse. Middleton, a prisoner whose own incarceration has produced college degrees, textbooks, a memoir and a self-help book, crafts an atmospheric, semiautobiographical tale. In it, he effectively captures the prison experience, complete with panicked lockdowns, riots, bittersweet visitations from friends and family, and the unquenchable passion of becoming a self-made intellectual while living life permanently behind bars. Overall, it’s a story about the power of positive thinking and hard work, and Priddy’s story shines with hopefulness throughout.
A searingly honest novel of determination and redemption that’s also an emotionally rewarding reading experience.