Ian Brown’s 2009 memoir, The Boy in the Moon: A Father’s Search for His Disabled Son – an unvarnished, heartrending account of Brown’s efforts to connect with his uncommunicative, seriously disabled child – struck a resounding chord with reviewers, prize juries, and readers. Their unqualified enthusiasm, however, wasn’t shared by members of a book club comprising inmates of the Collins Bay Institution, a medium-security correctional facility near Kingston, Ontario. One of the club’s leading voices complained that the author was too self-centred. Another member said he knew a family dealing with a similarly difficult situation but without the “upper middle-class advantages” Brown enjoyed. Some participants rendered more favourable judgments, but the general impression was that plenty of people face trying circumstances without complaint or a need to publicly launder their woes.
The judgments on Brown’s book and numerous others appear in Ann Walmsley’s empathetic and insightful memoir, The Prison Book Club, the most recent entry in the growing genre of books about book clubs. Several have become book-club mainstays in themselves, including Reading Lolita in Tehran, The Jane Austen Book Club, and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – the last of these devoured, and enjoyed, by the critical inmates at Collins Bay.
The Prison Book Club operates on a couple of levels. One is Walmsley’s initial reluctance to become involved in the first place. Invited by a friend to volunteer at Collins Bay, Walmsley first must overcome the lingering trauma of having been violently attacked by muggers while living in England. Mostly, though, the narrative deals with the inmates’ considered and generally astute responses to a wide variety of books, including Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes, Roddy Doyle’s The Woman Who Walked into Doors, Ayan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel, and Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace.
Evidence of the inmates’ perceptiveness is abundant throughout Walmsley’s book. Club members are intuitively skeptical that all might not be as reported in Three Cups of Tea, mountaineer Greg Mortenson’s best-selling account of his humanitarian efforts to build schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. A collective eyebrow was raised at Collins Bay well before the veracity of Mortenson’s account was assailed by author Jon Krakauer on 60 Minutes.
Walmsley, whose role is to suggest books, help steer the discussion, and encourage the most committed members to keep journals of their observations, befriends several of the prisoners, two of whom start their own book club after they are transferred from Collins Bay to the Beaver Creek minimum-security facility. It is there that the participants are joined by “one of Canada’s best-known white collar criminals,” an opinionated, somewhat arrogant contributor disliked by the other prisoners for, among other things, insisting that each book be ranked on a scale of one to 10. Walmsley is careful to protect the anonymity of her subjects, but a quick Google search is sufficient to establish the celebrity felon’s identity.
Although Walmsley provides detailed context for each book discussed, familiarity with at least some of the titles lends an additional point of reference. She avoids making blanket claims for the rehabilitative value of prison book clubs, but her account makes a strong case for the humanizing potential of literature.