Most big decisions in my life have made their beginnings in a scribbled list of pros and cons. Mark Salzman, author of True Notebooks: A Writer’s Year at Juvenille Hall, does the same thing, and thankfully, the pros of teaching a writing class to teenage offenders in L.A. beat out the cons. What follows from his decision is a memoir that artfully captures the lives of young incarcerated gang members with a tone that is equal parts sympathetic and straightforward.
Salzman argues that everyone has a story to tell – and it’s not always what you might think. Through his memories of his students’ (all male) conversations, as well as actual excerpts of their writing, he explores the whole story of how they arrived in the juvenile justice system. It’s a very fine line – portraying these boys as humans in terrible circumstances who made huge mistakes without justifying or excusing their actions. Salzman very delicately walks the balance, and the result is a fantastic read that, though at times uncomfortable, should be required reading for anyone who works with teenagers. Throughout my reading of the book I was struck by the fact that even though these were kids who had committed heinous crimes, they were still kids.
As True Notebooks explores the unpredictability and molasses-like slowness of our country’s justice system and treatment of prisoners, Salzman is careful not to take an obvious stand in favor for or against the policies and situations he gives readers a window into. The question forced me to really analyze my opinions on several of the issues surrounding crime and juveniles, and left me with quite a few burning questions. Can these crimes ever be excused when you look at the circumstances of the children who commit them? Can these prisoners ever be fully rehabilitated? Could I, as a voter, potential juror, and member of society ever completely forgive them for the human price that was paid for their actions? I wasn’t the only one with questions – the boys explore several of their own questions through writing, and many don’t have a clear idea of what life would be like for them if they were to get out. (Some of them do have an idea, and it’s not always an encouraging one.) Their writing, along with Salzman’s, is thought provoking in the best way imaginable.
I really enjoyed this book, so I’m giving it 4 stars. I can wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone, but beware – the language of teenage boys could be jarring and offensive to the “untrained ear”. ★★★★