Friday, March 4, 2011

Rikers High -- Paul Volponi

Some advice from 17-year-old Martin Stokes on surviving Rikers High:

Forget about your homeboys. They mostly cut you loose when you're locked down. Mine did. My two best friends from my block, dudes I grew up with, hadn't visited once. I don't even mention their names to Mom anymore. It's like they don't exist to me now. Only people that really care about you, like your close family, would go through that kind of trouble just to see you.

Martin's been at the Rikers Island jail for almost sixth months, pending trial for a committing a crime that he didn't even know was a crime. His court date has been delayed for the third time, and his face has just been sliced open -- a cut that requires 53 stitches to close -- in a fight that he wanted no part of.

He's ready to go home. But now he's got two more weeks at Rikers until his next court date, and hopefully -- hopefully -- then he'll be headed home. Rikers High is the story of those two weeks, and everything that Martin witnesses and experiences during that time.

Rikers High is a compelling account of day-to-day life in a juvenile detention center -- and if it feels authentic, it should: in writing it, Paul Volponi drew on his six years teaching at Rikers Island. The book never seems Ripped From the Headlines or in any way exploitative, and while there are adults (and inmates) who behave abhorrently at moments, I didn't feel that any of the characters came off as two-dimensional. Especially given that the narrative was entirely from Martin's point of view.

There are wide ranges of pacing and tone as Martin counts down the days to his next court date. At moments, seconds seem longer than hours, while at others, time goes by so fast that there almost isn't enough time to process what's happening; sometimes, Martin has himself completely in control, stone-faced and silent, while at others... maybe not so much. All that said, there was only one storyline that really hit me emotionally -- but the one that did hit me hard.

Definitely recommended to fans of Monster, After and other stories about incarceration.

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Book source: ILLed through my library.

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Cross-posted at Bookshelves of Doom.


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