Seven years ago, two friends and I from Rockway Mennonite Church in Kitchener, Ont., agreed to begin a book club with inmates in the local Grand Valley Institution for Women, a federal prison. Except for breaks in the summer, every month since then we have made our way through prison security and along a maze of corridors to a room where we are joined by a dozen or so women eager to talk about the latest work we have read. We read mostly fiction and some memoirs.
Favourite books the first year were The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway, and The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill (probably the most popular book over the years). Hill visited our club the next year, impressing the inmates with his interest in their own writing. Other authors who have visited our book club include Marina Nemat (Prisoner of Tehran) and Camilla Gibb (Sweetness in the Belly).
This year, books evoking lively discussion were A House in the Sky by Alberta writer Amanda Lindhout, and Indian Horse by Canadian indigenous writer Richard Wagamese.
Our book club is part of a network called Book Clubs for Inmates, founded in 2009 by Carol Finlay, an Anglican priest and former teacher. Beginning in a Kingston, Ont., prison, the organization now sponsors 26 clubs in federal prisons from Nova Scotia to B.C. The program is supported by donations. The books, which the inmates can keep, come through First Book Canada, a non-profit organization that connects publishers with community programs.
The book club expands not only the world of the inmates. As a relatively sheltered Mennonite woman, reading these books together with inmates continues to stretch and surprise me. The women speak frankly and feel free to disagree with one another and the author; some of our best discussions have concerned books they liked the least. Probably the most moving session was an evening with Elvira Toews, mother of author Miriam Toews. The book was All My Puny Sorrows, and Elvira’s generous, warm spirit opened the way to an emotional discussion with painful disclosures.
At one of the fundraisers for Book Clubs for Inmates, a former inmate said, “I quit school at Grade 8 and never read books. Who would have thought I would be in prison reading books like The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society?” Most of all, he was proud of joining the ranks of those who have read “the classics,” such as novels by Charles Dickens. At another event, a former inmate read a moving poem he had written entitled “I was in prison, and you visited me.”
At one of our book club meetings, we asked members why they like to read. “It takes me out of my own misery and puts me into someone else’s,” said one woman. Most agreed that they enjoy the escape into other worlds. “Reading makes me free to be anyone I want,” said another.
They especially like feisty, resilient female protagonists who overcome great difficulties in their lives.
For further information, visit bookclubsforinmates.com and interviews with Carol Finlay on YouTube.
See also “Paying attention to the invisible”