Prison Book Club Reading List

Dec. 6, 2012

Sample Reading List: Prison Book Club

  • Sherman Alexie, Smoke Signals. This screenplay (based on the author’s short story “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona”) is about a young Native American man who reluctantly travels off-reserve with a childhood friend to retrieve his estranged father’s body. It is a good introduction to the practice of dramatic reading, because it is high-interest and full of humour. The story explores issues of fractured family relationships, friendship, Native American pride and identity, substance abuse, and forgiveness and healing. I taught this novel in a high school upgrading class where the majority of students were Aboriginal; they found it moving and authentic but also very funny.
  • Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale. Atwood transports the reader into a near-future world where part of the United States has become Gilead, a heavily militarized totalitarian theocracy. Fertile women (rare in Gilead) are forced to be Handmaids, surrogate wombs for powerful government and military officials. Stripped of her name and previous identity as a professional woman with a husband and child, the narrator Offred (“of Fred”–Fred is the Commander to whose family she has been assigned as a Handmaid) keeps a secret diary recounting her past life and her present experiences as a Handmaid.
  • Lawrence Hill, The Book of Negroes (alternate international title: Somebody Knows My Name). The original Canadian title, The Book of Negroes, refers to a real historical document that recorded information about Black Loyalists and their families who were granted passage from New York on British ships. Many ended up settling in Nova Scotia. This is the story of a fictional 18th century African woman who is kidnapped as a girl, taken by slave ship to the American colonies, and eventually ends up as one of the Black passengers documented in the historical Book of Negroes.
  • Francine Prose, A Changed Man. This sly satire is the story of Vincent, a neo-Nazi who decides (for various complicated reasons) to leave the white supremacist hate group he belongs to and ends up working for Brotherhood Watch, an anti-hate group headed by a Holocaust survivor, Maslow. Since Vincent is homeless, he is temporarily taken in by Bonnie, one of the women who works at Brotherhood Watch. The novel is high-interest and fast-paced, and although one would not think the topic of neo-Nazis would leave much room for humour, there is plenty. There is also plenty to discuss here, including Vincent’s original motives for leaving the hate group and joining Brotherhood Watch, and the reasons why Maslow and Bonnie would trust Vincent. Is redemption possible? What is the nature of reformation? Is Vincent really a changed man after all?
  • Matthew Quick, The Silver Linings Playbook. This novel is told from the point of view of a man who is attempting to reintegrate back into his old community after having been institutionalized for mental illness. He has very little memory of what happened before he ended up in the psychiatric hospital, and the novel slowly reveals the circumstances that led up to his institutionalization. Meanwhile, as he is trying to uncover his past, he has to navigate new relationships with his family and develop new relationships, including a tentative friendship with a woman who has her own problematic past. There is a lot of humour in the novel despite its subject matter, and it is fast-paced and lightly suspenseful. The protagonist’s personal development seems realistic and emotionally engaging for readers.

While compiling this list I referred to Jenny Hartley’s (2005) work on prison reading groups. She suggests that participants must be involved as a group in choosing what to read next, but also offers a list of literature that worked well at the women’s prison (Send) and the men’s (Wandsworth). I attempted to include as much Canadian content as possible while also considering some of the subject matter/themes/genres in the list Hartley provides: race, poverty, science fiction, humour, relationships, memoir.

I also kept in mind Mar and Oatley’s (2008) research [see entry in annotated bibliography]  into the link between fictional narratives and the development of empathy. They emphasize the ability of narrative fiction to transport the reader into another world, another time period, and into the shoes of another person–all of which would be appropriate for prison group participants who do not have a lot of opportunity while incarcerated to explore different geographies or interact with people from the “outside.”