This book took me back to a time when I was living in Papua New Guinea with almost no access to books. The random few I could get my hands on I read with an intensity that the great works of literature from the university course I’d just finished had rarely stirred in me. I read with the same intensity that the men in this book read, but I read much less thoughtfully.
In 2010 Ann Walmsley’s friend Carol Finlay started a book club at Collins Bay, a penitentiary for men in Kingston, two hours east of Toronto, and enveigled the reluctant Ann into it. Still traumatised from a violent mugging some years before, Ann was not at all keen to spend time in a medium-security male prison, but Carol is a force of nature, and it wasn’t long before Ann was deeply involved with the books, the meetings and the men. Here are just a few of the extraordinary range of books they read: Alias Grace, The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night time, A Fine Balance, The Grapes of Wrath, and The Boy in The Moon, the story of a father’s struggle to come to terms with his son’s severe disabilities. The men bring everything to their discussion of the books – their own histories, their beliefs about how life should be, their theories about why we act the way we do, their wry knowingness about our worst instincts, and their curiosity about why writers make the choices they do.
As I read I thought of my own approach to reading. How pallid and constrained it seemed. I thought of book clubs I’ve belonged to, of highly-educated and consciously empathetic and liberal-thinking people, and the fact that for years I’ve chosen not to be a member of a book club. Asked which she’d prefer, an evening with her Toronto book club of women friends, or a meeting of the Collins Bay club, Walmsley says:
I would give up the wine and beer, the hot pear-and-apple crumble and the unusual cheeses to sit without drinking or eating anything in a room with the prison inmates I knew. Why? Because so much more is at stake. Anything could happen there that could change their lives or mine. And I am sure that least one of their comments would stay with me always. (268)
This is not a pollyannaish book. The stories we hear about the different members of the club range from the inspiring to the downright depressing. Carol Finlay herself is tough-minded. She’s never seen the book clubs as a way to rehabilitate; it’s simply that she loves books herself and knew this was something she could give.
Read it with your book club. It will change things. And if it doesn’t, find another book club.
Ann Walmsley The Prison Book Club (Oneworld 2015).