July 23, 2019

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Literary lockdown: Criminal minds mull masterpieces in prison book clubs

WAYNE CUDDINGTON, / THE OTTAWA CITIZEN

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/10/2015 (1375 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

When you think of the average Winnipeg book club, you probably imagine some friends sharing a novel and a bottle of wine in a comfortable middle-class living room.

In Anne Walmsley's account of book clubs in the Ontario penitentiary system, the setting is cold and institutional, the refreshments are meagre, and the members are doing time for manslaughter, drugs and extortion.

Looking at the establishment of inmate book clubs at the Collins Bay and Beaver Creek institutions in 2011 and 2012, the Toronto-based Walmsley makes a good case for the redemptive possibilities of literature. Reading such books as John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, Steven Galloway's The Cellist of Sarajevo, Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace and Roddy Doyle's The Woman Who Walked into Doors, the men discover trying to imagine someone else's life can help transform their own.

Despite this powerful central premise, Walmsley struggles to keep the momentum going. The Prison Book Club follows an enormously exciting project, but with detailed, dutiful and sometimes flat prose, it's not always an exciting book.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/10/2015 (1375 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

When you think of the average Winnipeg book club, you probably imagine some friends sharing a novel and a bottle of wine in a comfortable middle-class living room.

In Anne Walmsley's account of book clubs in the Ontario penitentiary system, the setting is cold and institutional, the refreshments are meagre, and the members are doing time for manslaughter, drugs and extortion.

Looking at the establishment of inmate book clubs at the Collins Bay and Beaver Creek institutions in 2011 and 2012, the Toronto-based Walmsley makes a good case for the redemptive possibilities of literature. Reading such books as John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, Steven Galloway's The Cellist of Sarajevo, Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace and Roddy Doyle's The Woman Who Walked into Doors, the men discover trying to imagine someone else's life can help transform their own.

Despite this powerful central premise, Walmsley struggles to keep the momentum going. The Prison Book Club follows an enormously exciting project, but with detailed, dutiful and sometimes flat prose, it's not always an exciting book.

Walmsley is initially recruited by the unstoppable Carol Finlay, a retired teacher and Anglican minister with a passionate belief in prison book clubs — she calls them "circles of civil discourse" — as a tool for rehabilitation.

As the men start reading and talking, the results are always encouraging and often astonishing. Unlike some of their book-club counterparts on the outside, the inmates tend to read the whole book. (They have fewer distractions.) Their insights, laid out in the book in lengthy debates and in excerpted journal entries, can be poignant.

So many book-club books deal with people in difficult circumstances, people at terrible turning points, people struggling with isolation and loss. There are so many trapped literary characters — and sometimes authors as well. (When the men discuss the story The Gift of the Magi, it comes out that short story writer O. Henry did a three-year stretch for embezzlement.) The men connect to these characters, often directly and viscerally.

And because of their particular skill sets, they bring another angle to some novels, particularly ones about crime. In William Boyd's Ordinary Thunderstorms, a man wrongly accused of murder and running from the law crawls into the bushes to nap. This doesn't ring true for the men. "I just know from experience, when you're under that kind of pressure, like, I didn't sleep for three days after my incident," comments one guy.

An award-winning magazine journalist, Walmsley is scrupulous about facts. Although names have been changed to protect privacy, there are no composite characters. Most of the dialogue is based on audio recordings.

Walmsley can't find a compelling through-line for all this material, however. She adds a personal dimension to the story: years earlier in London, she had been the victim of a violent mugging, and walking into a prison required her to face her fears and rediscover her trust in others. But without a down-deep sense of her life, this feels more like a framing device.

It's also hard to keep some of the men apart. Partly this is because they come and go, with prison transfers and parole hearings and, for some, release back into the world. Walmsley offers careful physical descriptions, but she never gets their personalities to jump off the page.

Probably the book's best moments come when the men speak for themselves. Take Dread, who's serving a long sentence on drug charges, explaining the lure of difficult literary works. "The book is not a predator. It's a prey. You have to go after it," he tells other inmates. This contrasts with page-turners by Danielle Steele and Sidney Sheldon, both popular in jails, which are "predators that go after you."

It's an idiosyncratic — and possibly menacing — way to look at literature, but Dread is definitely on to something.

 

Alison Gillmor always reads the whole book before she goes to a book-club meeting.

Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor
Writer

Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.

Read full biography

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