by Ann B.
NEA Big Read is a program of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with Arts Midwest.
El proyecto NEA Big Read es una iniciativa del National Endowment for the Arts (el Fondo Nacional para las Artes de Estados Unidos) en cooperación con Arts Midwest.
What do you think of when you hear “book club”? Middle aged women discussing the latest literary fiction or, maybe chick lit, novel, while drinking wine of course. Or maybe you think of retirees, discussing the latest John Grisham or C.J. Box novel. You probably don’t think of inmates discussing the plot line of any novel; much less bring up the plot device of “the hand of God” also known as “Deus ex machina”. But that is what we have been experiencing through our partnership with the Penitentiary of New Mexico for our Big Read of Luis Alberto Urrea’s Into the Beautiful North.
It has been, in a word, fantastic.
Prison book clubs are not incredibly new but they are not necessarily prevalent in many facilities. There are many things to consider:
- the topic of the book
- its availability in paperback (hardcover books are not allowed)
- volunteer training and orientation
- approval from facility leadership
We have met for the past three Tuesdays via video conferencing for a lively discussion of Luis Alberto Urrea’s Into the Beautiful North. Roseanna Andrade, the PNM librarian, has wonderfully led us through three-quarters of the book. Our group includes six Santa Fe Public Library librarians and six prison inmates along with Roseanna.
Ryan, Virgilio, Joshua, Carlos, Larenzo, and Richard are active and engaged participants. Their interests include science fiction/fantasy, adventure, mystery, self-help, philosophy, and history. Their favorite characters include Aria Stark, Lisbeth Salander, Teresa Mendoza, Roland Deschain and others. Some are from the Southwest and are familiar with the border area that combines New Mexico, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico. Others have no experience with the notion of border crossing beyond what they see and hear on TV. Diverse backgrounds make for great discussion.
However diverse their background, finding common ground in Urrea’s book is not difficult for them or for us. If you have not read the book yet, maybe this will inspire you to check it out from the library. Or if you have read it, thethoughts and insights from these men may shine a different light or give you a different perspective.
Also, spoiler alert. . .
One of the first topics that came up was the idea of the grand quest. Two of the men mentioned they were reading or re-reading Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, a 14-book series with questing and traveling at its core. The questing theme is found in almost all literature. Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces explores this concept in depth. We are all searching for something, aren’t we? Our main character, Nayeli, leads the group of four on a quest to bring seven strong men back to save their town. This, of course, turned our first discussion to the movie The Magnificent Seven with Yul Brynner, which inspired Nayeli to embark on this quest. The consensus is the 1960 version was better than the 2016 remake. But, the first original, The Seven Samurai, is a classic.
The discussion moves towards some hard questions. Are there any good men in the story? Matriarchal society versus machismo culture was mentioned, as the character, La Osa, is a strong and fierce woman. The inmates definitely picked up on the fact that all the men have left the small town leaving it defenseless and ripe for the picking by drug cartels. One of our participants confirmed that this happens frequently. This is not a made up plot line to move a story along. Drug cartels take over the small towns when the young and able-bodied men head north. So, again, where are the good men? Finding partners for themselves is as much a part of the quest as saving the town.
In our three sessions, so many new perspectives and ideas have been brought forth. With only one more to go, I am anxious to see where it leads. Will we discuss the Dump metaphor? The Dump representing disposable people? But also representing making something good out of someone else’s trash like the couple that helps the group and feeds them in Tijuana? Or maybe the idea of divine providence will pop up again?
What about home? Where is your home? Is it in you? Do you make a home wherever you end up? Or, what reminds us of home? A smell, a sound?
And what about our expectations? The dream of going north versus the reality of the experience. The reality of thieves, deportation, tear gas, and assault outweighs the kindness experienced through a simple meal. Our discussion on kindness was intense. A couple of participants were concerned that the group wasn’t experience real kindness as there were ulterior motives involved. True kindness is seen as selflessness and sacrifice. It must be altruistic.
In reading this book, we may forget that three of our main characters are teenagers. They still have a lot of growing to do. Roseanna mentioned, and we all agreed, that a significant amount of growing up is going on. But they don’t just grow up during this experience, they grow through it. And doesn’t that just sum up all of our life experiences.
The beauty of books and book clubs, the experience of a shared discussion, is that it brings to mind our similarities as well as our differences. As I said earlier, our group is a wonderfully diverse group including people with a range of experience, ages, and ethnicities. Yet we all find common ground either in the characters, the setting, the plot, or the plot device. I hope you have the opportunity to share this experience too.