I’d Like to Help Find You Some Good Books

Not far from my stack of book-club books, in another section of my shelf, is an old red cloth-bound volume: The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats. Several pages have the corners turned down, including one featuring ‘Under Ben Bulben’, which has lines my father quoted often:

Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!

Those lines are the epitaph on Yeats’s tombstone, and they are the lines we said over my father shortly after he died. I had always imagined that the horseman was the horseman of death and that the poet was asking to be spared. But another interpretation came to me recently: the horseman was fear. Through books, I found some of the courage my father had wanted me to find. I created meaning with men who represented the very thing I feared.

Six years ago, when my friend Carol Finlay invited me to join a book club she had started in a Canadian men’s prison, everything about it screamed bad idea. I admired the work she was doing but wasn’t sure I could take part. In England in 2002, at the age of 46, I had survived a violent mugging. Two men had chased me down a dark lane beside my London house, choked me until I’d lost consciousness, then fled with my mobile phone.

It had taken me months to overcome the trauma, and during my remaining three years in the city, I was too frightened to walk alone at night. I wasn’t sure I could enter the prison without triggering my earlier response. But then I remembered that, in the weeks after the attack, I had felt an unexpected maternal impulse as I’d imagined how distressed my assailants’ mothers must have felt about their errant sons. Something my father once said to me also came to mind: “If you expect the best of people, they will rise to the occasion.” As an Ontario Court judge, he had seen people at their worst.

I knew Carol had the men at Collins Bay Institution, a federal penitentiary in Kingston, Ontario, reading good literary fiction and non-fiction. They met once a month to discuss a chosen book. It was, in some ways, just like the club Carol and I belonged to in Toronto, except we were all women and not in jail.

By the slimmest of margins, my curiosity began to outweigh my apprehension. I couldn’t resist seeing what the convicts would say about the books.

What I didn’t know until my first visit was that Carol and I would meet the 18 or so heavily tattooed book club members in a remote building within the prison walls, with no guards present and no visible security cameras. Carol’s idea was to put the men at ease. Our only protection would be a chaplain wearing a personal security alarm that would alert guards in the main building, some 80 m away.

Built in the 1930s, Collins Bay is a grey castle fronting a vast square of limestone rampart, with red-capped guard towers at each corner. This was my view as I walked up, in October 2010, for my inaugural session with the prison book club. I had followed Carol’s instructions to downplay my curves and eliminate showy jewellery. I was wearing a turtleneck, a tweed jacket and pants, my gold wedding band and simple pearl stud earrings. I was also wearing my nerves. My hand shook as I signed the guest logbook at reception.

From that moment on, I remember only brief impressions. I was fearful to the point of shock. After the set of metal doors at the entrance slammed behind me, I recall being hit by the smell – an unpleasant yeasty odour I couldn’t quite identify, as though decades of hardship, hate and regret had condensed on the walls. The prison chaplain, Blair [the names of prison workers and inmates have been changed], was escorting Carol and me. We passed lots of men in white waffle-weave long-sleeved shirts or blue T-shirts and jeans, some pushing carts or carrying mops, and I remember thinking, Gosh, they have a lot of staff here.

Blair was saying something about the ‘telephone pole’ design of the prison – a main corridor, known as ‘The Strip’, with cell units branching off on both sides. He led us to a secondary building that looked like a parish hall. And then somehow I was sitting on a wooden chair, waiting for the inmates to arrive, wondering whether to peel off my name tag, which announced to them all that I was Ann.

The men who walked in the door were dressed like the guys I thought were cleaning staff. Those were the inmates? Why were they roaming around freely? Why was the chaplain, the only one wearing a security alarm, leaving the room briefly? And why did Carol look so relaxed? Then one man came towards me smiling, with his arm extended. “Hello, welcome,” he said. I stood up and grasped his hand and thanked him. Many of the others followed his lead, gracious and non-threatening.

Carol introduced me as the head of the prison book club’s book selection committee, saying I was an award-winning magazine journalist who had majored in English literature at university. I was sitting in to get a better sense of which books might appeal to them. After that, she led them in a discussion of Dave Eggers’s wonderful non-fiction book Zeitoun, about a Syrian-born landlord and house painter in post-Katrina New Orleans who is swept up by Homeland Security. It’s a book I had read and loved, but I have no recollection of what the men said about it. Instead, I was busy rehearsing in my mind the self-defence manoeuvres I had learned in London.

The men seemed baffled by my presence, by my decision to drive two-plus hours from Toronto, given that I wasn’t proselytising religion and I wasn’t being paid. After the meeting, an inmate approached me and asked, “Miss, why would a nice person like you want to spend time with bad guys like us?”

That’s a very good question, I thought. But I said, “I’d like to help find you some good books.”

Within a few months, I had figured out my role at the Collins Bay Book Club. Carol and another volunteer (a former radio host) alternated leading the club, tapping into her skills as a high school English teacher and his as a broadcast interviewer. I was a writer-in-residence of sorts, offering comments on the authors’ styles and observing from the point of view of book selection.

For our May 2011 meeting, I had suggested The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by British writer Mark Haddon. The book, which journeys into the mind of someone with what appears to be autism spectrum disorder, is narrated by a 15 year old named Christopher, who lives according to a strict routine in order to avoid sensory overload. But when the teenager discovers his neighbour’s poodle impaled with a pitchfork, he travels outside his comfort zone to search for the killer, using detective skills he has learned from reading Sherlock Holmes mysteries.

The boy’s investigations unveil adult secrets at home and throughout his neighbourhood. In fact, just about everything in adult life seems deceptive and irrational when viewed through the factual and literal lens of a person with autism.

What made the book worthy of our club, I thought, were its insights into the loneliness of a person who finds himself approaching the world differently than others.

Carol’s co-lead, who was moderating the discussion that day, kicked things off by saying that it took him a long time to like the protagonist.

Graham, a 1.9 m blond inmate, agreed. “The writing style drove me absolutely crazy. If I saw the word ‘and’ one more time, I was going to go totally insane.” It was true that large parts of Christopher’s narrative were told in a breathless “and I said… and he said… and I said,” but it was damned believable.

Carol always sympathised with readers’ frustrations. “The first time I read it, I really liked it,” she said. “But the second time, it drove me bonkers, and perhaps it was all the ands.” She went on to give the men a primer on autism, including that people on the spectrum could be quick to anger and had enormous difficulties with social interaction.

“I liked the part where he hit the cop,” said Frank, who was serving ten years for aggravated assault and weapons offences. This got a hearty laugh from everyone. The scene comes early in the novel, when the police question Christopher about why he was found holding the dead dog. The boy goes into sensory overload from the interrogation and lies on the ground groaning. As a rule, he doesn’t like being touched, so when a policeman takes hold of his arm, Christopher hits him.

It was the moderator who first advanced the idea that we could all, in some way, identify with Christopher. Not that any of us is autistic, he said, but “we’re all, in some way, standing on the outside of the circle, or the periphery, of life.”

“Oh, yeah,” said Ben, an eager book enthusiast whose heavy-lidded eyes drooped at the outer corners, giving him a slightly hurt look. “Especially being in here, I guess we can all get to where he’s at sometimes.”

Carol reiterated that we are all on the margins in some way. She told the men about a trip she’d made to France a couple of years earlier to visit Canadian humanitarian Jean Vanier and his L’Arche community, where developmentally delayed people live with their caregivers. When she was there, a resident had approached her and asked, “Are you normal?”

Carol’s story inspired Frank to describe the Exceptional Person Olympiad the prison sponsors each summer, bringing in people with intellectual disabilities for two days of games and sports with the inmates. “One of them gave me a hug!” he said.

Several of the men had positive stories about the event. One large man with a sleepy voice said, “Here, you’re in an institution. You’re surrounded by hate. You’re surrounded by opinions. Everybody in prison has an opinion. At the Olympiad you’re with people who don’t. They’re very loving, very outgoing, very easy to be around.”

Graham had one more gloss to add on the subject of autism in the novel. He suggested that maybe autism was a metaphor for a failure of communication between all of Christopher’s family members and the suffering that ensued from that breakdown. With that comment, he came closest to Haddon’s own declaration about the book – that it was really about everyone.

What I’d failed to understand when I’d proposed The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was how uncomfortable most inmates are with the idea of neurodevelopmental disorders and mental illness. ‘Bugs’ is prison slang for the mentally ill, and bugs are generally avoided in the yard because they are perceived as volatile.

Graham highlighted this in a brief essay he had written, which he shared with Carol and me in the wake of our discussion. “Imagine living in a world where a variety of mental illnesses were rampant and patients received little or no treatment,” read the opening line. “Now imagine you weren’t allowed to leave this world for any reason. Imagine violence was common and the population extremely unpredictable. Such a world exists right here in Canada, and I live in it every single day.”

The essay went on to describe an inmate who drinks his own urine, one who snorts coffee grounds, others who don’t shower or who hear voices. Graham cited the suicide rate among federally incarcerated inmates in the country as 84 per 100,000, versus 11.3 for all citizens.

Later, I double-checked Graham’s data. He was right.

Carol’s efforts to make the Collins Bay Book Club feel more like a book club on the outside led her to invite prominent authors to visit and answer the men’s questions about the books. The first writer she recruited was Lawrence Hill, whose 2007 historical novel, The Book of Negroes (published as Someone Knows My Name in many countries), was an international hit. That book’s protagonist is a stoic West African slave who preserves her dignity despite her deprivations – a situation with which men in prison could identify. And Hill was well positioned to have additional street cred with many of the club’s members: he was a role model as a successful black man.

Hill had initially declined Carol’s invitation because of a busy writing schedule and the three-hour drive to the prison. Eventually, Carol asked him out for coffee. Hill had showed up intending to say no to the visit but found that he was no match for Carol’s persistence.

That was in 2010, before I joined the book group. Frank, Ben and Dread (a tall man with dreadlocks dangling from under a tam) were among the members in attendance at that first meeting with the author. “It was the most intimate, detailed, focused, sustained conversation about the book I’d had with any group,” Hill later told me. “And that includes PhD students, graduate seminars and everything.” The experience was so rewarding he let Carol know he would be happy to return.

And so, on my fifth session with the Collins Bay Book Club, in the early summer of 2011, Hill was back to talk to the inmates.

I was captivated by Aminata Diallo, the fictional main character in The Book of Negroes. At the age of 11, in the 1700s, she is kidnapped by slavers from her native West Africa and sold to a South Carolina indigo plantation. She survives the horrific conditions of the slave ship, years of labour in the fields and having two children taken from her. This could have been the voice of some of the black inmates’ female ancestors.

The book club’s key members had done a good job of advertising Hill’s visit, and some 30 men showed up on that hot June day. It was the largest turnout I had seen to date.

Ben kicked off the conversation by commenting, “You cultivate this grace in all your books, I noticed.” Since Hill’s visit the previous year, Ben had read his debut novel, Some Great Thing.

The author’s eyes opened wide, and he smiled at Ben. He talked about imbuing his characters with admirable qualities like courage because he liked to ask himself whether he would have that courage under those circumstances. “It’s the same thing with grace,” said Hill. “There’s something to be said for people who keep their dignity, even when all hell is breaking out around them and they’re enduring horrible things. They keep their dignity and don’t forget they’re just as human as everybody else.”

Hill was answering Ben’s question, but he appeared to be slipping in a stealth message to the room: he admired their courage and their humanity in how they were enduring prison. I felt the power of his words, and his comments affected the men, too. A muscle twitched in Graham’s cheek, and Ben smiled his slow smile. Many of the others sat rapt.

Towards the end of the meeting, Carol asked Hill to share a couple of passages from The Book of Negroes. He read two of the most memorable sections: when Aminata has just disembarked from the slave ship and is frightened by the ‘smoke’ coming from her mouth as her breath condenses in the cold morning air; and when another slave inoculates Aminata against smallpox by implanting a lesion under her skin.

Then it was time for the inmates to come forward to have their books signed. I was very moved to see how eager they were – how precious this opportunity was for them. Sitting beside Hill, I had the chance to hear him talk to each man.

Dread was second in line and asked for his book to be signed to his wife and ten-year-old daughter.

When Ben reached the front of the line with his copy, they chatted about Some Great Thing, which draws on Hill’s years as a reporter for a Winnipeg paper. Once it was his turn, Graham thanked Hill for coming in a way that communicated gratitude from all of the men. Carol told Hill that Graham hoped to work with youth once he was granted parole. I had a feeling she would try to get them together ‘on the outs’, prison slang for ‘on the outside’.

An hour later, over lunch in Kingston, Hill told me there had been one question in particular from the men that he had never considered before. “When Ben asked me about grace – nobody’s ever put that to me,” he said. “Those guys are likely taking a lot more from books than other people because they have more time, they have more energy, they’re able to focus on it and they have more need.”

Hill had engaged with people inside before, it turned out. A few years earlier, when a secure-custody facility for juveniles was frustrated with its inability to get a group of teen boys to read, the corrections authorities had called Hill and asked if he would give helping them a try.

The kids, who were serving long terms, could read – they just wouldn’t. Hill had succeeded after getting together with the boys once a week over lunch in the prison library.

“How did you do it?” I asked.

“I gave them each books individually,” Hill told me. “I figured out what a kid would like after talking to him for a couple of hours.”

It was never a book from the prison library – too uncool. The books were gifts from him – personal recommendations.

The boys would come back sometimes complaining they’d disliked a book he’d given them.

“They hated the beginning, where the character did this; the climax, where the character did that; and the ending that was so unsatisfying,” he recalled. In other words, they had read the book.

Excerpted from The Prison Book Club, by Ann Walmsley. © 2015 Ann Walmsley. Published by Viking Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

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