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Archive for November, 2014

Last spring I attended the Public Library Association conference and one of the speakers was Bryan Stevenson. His talk was tailored to the vast hall filled with librarians, (he reminded us of public libraries’ important role as one of the last egalitarian institutions in America) but much of what he said is in Just Mercy, the book he has just published.

Just Mercy is about Stevenson’s work as the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. EJI works to free the wrongly incarcerated, especially those on death row, and to bring about reform in a justice system that “continues to treat people better if they are rich and guilty than if they are poor and innocent.” The book is remarkable not only because it is appalling that in the nation founded on principles of “liberty and justice for all” we have such a broken system, but also because the tireless work Stevenson and his colleagues do and the injustices they attempt to right both go largely unnoticed.

Stevenson writes eloquently and passionately about some of the people who have changed his life: Henry, the first death row inmate he met, who sang a hymn as the guard pushed him roughly out of the visitation room where he and Stevenson had spent more than their allotted time; Jimmy Dill, a man whose disabilities did not dissuade the state of Alabama from executing him, and whose stutter reminded Stevenson of a childhood encounter; Walter McMillian, one of the wrongly convicted whose freedom Stevenson won and who became a friend. He writes of the individual circumstances of these people’s lives and also of the broad and shocking statistics that bear witness to the lack of justice available to the poor, disabled, mentally ill, women, children, and minorities in our justice system. Stevenson equates today’s mass incarceration with slavery, racial terrorism (lynching and convict leasing following abolition), and legalized segregation as the most damaging racial injustices in American history.

Stevenson also writes eloquently about being afraid, angry, and broken: “You can’t effectively fight abusive power, poverty, inequality, illness, oppression, and injustice and not be broken by it.” This is the most stunning thing about Just Mercy. While Stevenson suggests, and has brought about, many specific reforms, his final prescription for ending injustice is so simple that there is not one person who can’t participate in it.”We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing.”

It’s that basic. We are all broken. Accept that, and we could be on the road to real racial and economic reconciliation. Reflecting on what he shared at Walter McMillian’s funeral, Stevenson notes, “Walter’s case had taught me that the death penalty is not about whether people deserve to die for the crimes they commit. The real question of capital punishment in this country is, Do we deserve to kill?

If you read Just Mercy you’ll conclude that we don’t. And you’ll conclude that racism is still pervasive in America today. As Nicholas Kristof wrote in his column about Bryan Stevenson last month, “THE greatest problem is not with flat-out white racists, but rather with the far larger number of Americans who believe intellectually in racial equality but are quietly oblivious to injustice around them. . . . We are not racists, but we accept a system that acts in racist ways.”

Embrace Stevenson’s call to just mercy, to compassion, to understanding and healing, and this can end.

 

 

 

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The column ran in today’s Concord Monitor:

November 2014 Mindful Reader

by Deb Baker

Concord native Michael Fournier’s new novel Swing State is set in the fictional mill town of Armbrister, New Hampshire. Swing State is about three tragic characters: Roy Eggleton, injured Afghan war vet with no family and nearly no friends; Dixon Dove thief, vandal, and high school bully; and Zach Tietz, one of her regular targets.  All three are victims of abuse and neglect. Fornier takes readers inside their heads to experience their misery firsthand as they struggle to get out of their unfortunate situations and away from Armbrister.

These three characters are vivid, as is the complete impotence of their community. The few people who are meant to help Roy, Dixon, and Zach  —  with veterans’ benefits, guidance at school, etc. – are completely ineffective. Readers don’t even see these helping professionals long enough to know if they are hapless or part of a faulty system. Even at the end of the book, when the grim tension is broken by an over-the-top event that melds Roy’s, Dixon’s, and Zach’s suffering, I felt there was little resolution and no hope. In describing Zach’s despair over one of Dixon’s attacks on him Fournier writes, “He knew he was unable to act. No matter the brand of humiliation inflicted on him, he could not stand up for himself. He could not fight back. He was only able to be acted upon. Not to act. Always a defenseman, never a striker.”

If that is Fournier’s point – and it may very well be, that the kind of suffering he’s portraying here is practically impossible to escape — he makes it very well. But to paraphrase Neil Gaiman, fiction can provide people the tools to break out of their prisons. Swing State succeeds in taking readers into the prison of despairing lives, but it doesn’t show the way out or even hint that there may be one.

Canterbury author James Marino’s debut fantasy novel, The Keepers of Mercia, is filled with the classical elements of the genre. Binette, a teenager who just wants to get off her parents’ farm and spend more time with her boyfriend, is the heroine, who at the outset of the book has no idea of the powers she will inherit or the journey that will ensue. Enjoyable as it is to find strong female characters in a fantasy novel – one of the Keepers’ guards is a woman as well – Binette seemed a little unformed. But she is quite young, so maybe that is by design. The story unfolds with plenty of intrigue, an epic journey, and battles galore. Binette doesn’t appear to be influenced by happily-ever-after once she realizes what’s in store. The book ends with a teaser for the next installment, so there will be more adventure to come for Binette and her friends. Occasional verbal flourishes: “Her future with Jarrod had been washed away by the sudden gust of immutable destiny, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t celebrate their bond,” are districting, but most of the writing is not so flowery.

Northern New Hampshire author Leah Carey noticed a burst of hashtag activism on Twitter in the wake of the Isla Vista shooting last spring; the shooter “blamed his misery . . . on the fact that women refused to be intimate with him.”  In two days, 1.2 million tweets included #YesAllWomen , as people around the world responded with stories of women’s “harassment, discrimination, assault, sexism, and violence.” A seasoned workshop leader (she  worked with Jodi Picoult on Bosom Buddies, a breast cancer survivor theater workshop) Carey decided to invite a number of women who were participating in the Twitter conversation to join her in an online writing workshop to share their experiences. You Are Not Alone: Stories from the Front Lines of Womanhood is the result. It’s a book in ten voices, plus twitter posts, covering an array of issues and challenges from sexual and emotional freedom to women’s own role in perpetuating gender bias. The stories are powerful and moving, even if it’s somewhat astonishing that they still need to be told today. In the last chapter, Carey provides readers with a blueprint for starting a similar writing group, with suggestions and writing prompts.

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