For 7 ½ years, it was my most nourishing volunteer assignment. Two friends and I co-led a monthly book club at the federal women’s prison in Kitchener under the auspices of Book Clubs for Inmates. I’d been in book clubs for the past 30 years, so when the invitation came to help launch this one, I jumped at the chance.
Book Clubs for Inmates was founded by Carol Finlay, an Anglican minister and former high school teacher, and now has clubs in 22 different federal prisons in Canada. Participants get to keep the books after reading them.
At book club, we meet with up to 14 inmates and the very supportive prison librarian in a classroom in medium security. In recent years several women from maximum security have joined us also. (A club with different leaders meets in minimum security.)
We read mostly fiction, with a memoir and perhaps a self-help book included each year. We choose the books with help from a list of suggestions generated by Book Clubs for Inmates. Each spring we leaders read books at a dizzying pace, looking for titles accessible yet also challenging for the range of readers in our group.
The women especially gravitate towards novels and memoirs with feisty resilient female characters who overcome great odds. Five of their many favorites over the years have been:
Above all others, The Book of Negroes by Canadian author Lawrence Hill, chronicling the life of the fictional character Aminata…stolen from her village in Africa and sold into slavery in the U.S. South…eventually sailing to a free colony in Birchtown, Nova Scotia…ending up as an abolitionist in England. Hill was a huge hit when he came to the prison as our first visiting author. He endeared himself with his calm, respectful spirit, and took an interest in some of the inmates’ own aspirations as writers.
- The Glass Castle, a memoir by Jeannette Walls of growing up in a poor, dysfunctional family.
- The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. A lovely story about a tough young adult woman just released from the foster care system who heals through the language of flowers.
- Finding Nouf, a murder mystery involving a teenage girl set in Saudi Arabia, where author Zoe Ferraris lived for a time.
- Indian Horse by Canadian author Richard Wagamese. A novel depicting the residential school experience and its aftermath, told in the voice of a boy enthused about hockey named Saul Indian Horse.
What astonishes me is that most months, there comes a time during our hour together when the differences between us fade away, and we’re just an intergenerational group of women (aged 20 – 70+) exploring a book together and making some connections with our own experiences. I’m often amazed at the women’s insights. And some of the best discussions are about books which club members don’t like or which garner a variety of opinions!
Comments from participants over the years include:
“The books are a gateway to anything, anytime, anyplace we want…” “Reading takes me out of my own misery and puts me into someone else’s…” “I like all the different takes on the books and being able to speak our opinions openly and freely…”
Last winter, health issues required my resignation from book club leadership. I was very sorry to leave the group. But I’m pleased that my friends are continuing, with a new partner.
Questions for Reflection:
- What is your most nourishing volunteer commitment? Why?
- Which novels or memoirs have been healing for you? Why?
Next week: TBA