I am currently reading my way through a long list of science fiction and fantasy titles. (http://www.npr.org/2011/08/07/138938145/science-fiction-and-fantasy-finalists if you are interested in the list).
Just as Larry Newton, one of the most notorious inmates at Indiana Federal Prison, was trying to break out of jail, Dr. Laura Bates was trying to break in. She had created the world’s first Shakespeare class in supermax – the solitary confinement unit.
Many people told Laura that maximum-security prisoners are “beyond rehabilitation." But Laura wanted to find out for herself. She started with the prison's most notorious inmate: Larry Newton. When he was 17 years old, Larry was indicted for murder and sentenced to life with no possibility of parole. When he met Laura, he had been in isolation for 10 years.
Larry had never heard of Shakespeare. But in the characters he read, he recognized himself.
In this profound illustration of the enduring lessons of Shakespeare through the ten-year relationship of Bates and Newton, an amazing testament to the power of literature emerges. But it's not just the prisoners who are transformed. It is a starkly engaging tale, one that will be embraced by anyone who has ever been changed by a book.
My inspiration to read this book was Margaret Atwood’s fiction Hag-Seed (and secondarily The Heart Goes Last), as well as a memoir by former prisoner, Stephen Reid (A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden). Additionally, I had just finished If We Were Villains, in which Shakespearean plays may have played a role in sending the main character to prison, the very opposite of this memoir.
Now, I am predisposed to enjoy a memoir of the redemptive value of literature, particularly Shakespeare, for whom I have an abiding love. Add to that the fact that I have considered doing literacy work with prisoners (although I have not yet taken the plunge) and I appreciated Laura Bates’ description of the perils and the pluses of doing such work.
This is real-life, not fiction, so I didn’t get exactly the story that I hoped for. There is no ending, really, because Larry Newton will never get out of prison. All projects must come to an end eventually, and the author is no longer teaching Shakespeare to prisoners. Still, it was very readable and inspirational. If nothing else, I am encouraged to study the works of the Bard more closely myself.