Saturday, June 26, 2010

Monster, by Walter Dean Myers

I heard a disturbing statistic today-the United States has the fastest growing prison population in the world.  Not just in the western world, but the world-period!  That means that totalitarian governments like North Korea and Iran put fewer people in jail than we do.  Much of this can be traced back to mandatory sentencing for drug crimes-and while I have many opinions on that, it doesn't have much to do with the review I am about to write.  What does is another disturbing trend-more and more states are allowing youth as young as 15 to be tried as adults for violent or drug-related crimes.

Walter Dean Myers takes this issue on in his book, MonsterMonster is the story of Steve Harmon, a 16 year-old black teenager living in Harlem.  At the opening of the book Steve is incarcerated, about to stand trial for felony murder, a charge that could carry the death penalty.  We quickly learn a few things about Steve-he's smart, he's creative, and he's terrified.  The only way he can deal with the emotions brought on by his incarceration and trial are to treat them as a screenplay.  This budding film maker may or may not have been involved in a drugstore robbery, a robbery that went horribly wrong when the store owner was shot and killed.  Steve's supposed part in the robbery-look out.  The book follows his trial, and the effect that it has on him and his family.

Most of Myers' books take on issues of race, racism, and growing up black and male in our society.  One of his strengths is that he does not make excuses for poor choices.  What he does is paint a pretty stark picture of what it can be like to grow up black, male, and poor in America.  You may not always like his characters, but you can understand their lives and their choices based on the circumstances in which they live.  Monster is no different.  It would be easy to make this story about racist police and racist judges sending another black boy to prison, but the story is more nuanced than that.  Not that there aren't elements of race and racism woven into the narrative-it is impossible to separate that strand of American culture from the rest when talking about issues of poverty, crime, and justice in America's urban centers.  But the book is not about racism, per se.  It is about one boy, coming to terms with what it would mean if he spent the rest of this life behind bars.

To me, that is the real issue that this book raises.  How can we, as a society, support sending teenagers as young as 15 and 16 to jail for the rest of their lives?  We must believe that teenagers have not yet reached the age of responsibility, seeing as we don't let children that young vote, drink alcohol, smoke tobacco, or make their own medical decisions.  How then can we expect them to pay for the rest of their lives for a decision made before rationality, reason, and responsibility have truly taken hold of their minds?   I don't have the answer for how to rehabilitate young offenders, so I won't pretend that I do, but it seems to me that before we start locking children up for what could amount to 60 or 70 years (provided the violence in prison doesn't kill them sooner, but that is another post for another blog), we should at least make sure that we have exhausted every other possibility.

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