Book Review

Originally Posted: September 7, 2010

Just finished reading True Notebooks: A writer’s year in Juvenile Hall, by Mark Salzman.

This book is a remarkable journey. We follow Salzman through his year of teaching writing at a Juvenile detention facility in Los Angeles, which he embarks on reluctantly.   He soon becomes intrigued by his group of young offenders, many who are facing life sentences.

I found the structure of this book very rewarding: we’re drawn in slowly, getting to know the details of the setting, meeting the characters, learning about the system. From the beginning, we are given bits and pieces of the boys’ actual writing, along with Salzman’s own reflections…  After a few chapters, I was completely invested in Salzman’s group of young writers, who made me laugh and cry.   These kids spill their guts on the page, in their own unique voices, about their moms, their homies, their regrets, their longings, their terrors… Sometimes hysterically funny, sometimes infuriating, sometimes heart-breaking, these boys, many of whom are charged with gang-related murders, reveal themselves as human beings–full of hope and despair, longing for a reason to believe in themselves.

Salzman doesn’t sentimentalize them. He resists glorifying or justifying their crimes. Rather, he paints a heartbreakingly complex and disturbing portrait of children caught in a broken society, and living out their days in a system that discounts their humanity. Perhaps they lost that right when they committed their crimes, Salzman wonders. Perhaps he could be doing more good working with kids who haven’t yet been incarcerated. But it’s clear that he’s giving these boys a chance to be heard and understood–to “feel special,”–however briefly, before they’re sent off to the grim fates awaiting them.

One line from this book really stayed with me: “there can be no justice without compassion, and no compassion without understanding.” This book brings us a step closer, then, to true justice.  I highly recommend it.

Posted by: Dori

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