Friday, January 8, 2010

Riveting Reads: No Choirboy


I believe in semi-fate. That is, I believe that some things—not all—happen for a reason. For example I don’t believe that there was anything serendipitous about what I got for Christmas say…twelve years ago. (Frankly, I have no idea what I got. An awesome flannel shirt and Timberlands, maybe.) On the other hand, I believe that fate can and does happen. So when the school I work in had a water-pipe explosion in the library last year and many books were destined for the dumpster or placed on a “free books” shelf in the library, fate waved its magic wand and voila! I possessed my very own mostly mold-free copy of No Choirboy!
No Choirboy: Murder, Violence, and Teenagers on Death Row (Henry Holt) by Susan Kuklin is a non-fiction book made up of several unedited stories of teens on death row. Kuklin summarizes each of her highlighted teenage criminals’ cases, and then lets the criminals tell their stories in their own words. Some claim innocence. Others are guilty of their crimes, know it, and confess it in a raw, not necessarily guiltless manner, but they are more matter-of-fact about their crimes. They also discuss their environment, life on death row, other inmates, daily challenges, visitation, and family on the outside.
One inmate, Roy, was removed from death row due to a change in his case. He states this about his experience with his crime: “Have I learned anything? Truthfully? The name of the game is this: Think before you act. Think about the consequences” (34). Much of the criminals’ dialogues are about how they wish they could go back and change what happened and how they wouldn’t make the same mistakes again.
Another boy, Mark, was sent to death row at fourteen. Of his guilt, he says, “I killed a man. […] I knew it was wrong. I knew it before it happened. I’ve had people telling me, ‘Oh, you didn’t know no better, you were just fourteen...’ And even though that’s true, in effect I’m the one that did it. And that’s the bottom line. I haven’t had a day of peace since then” (36).
My disclaimer is this: Susan Kuklin is against capital punishment, and at the end of the day No Choirboy is persuasive in nature. Kuklin strives to put a stop to the victimization of teens in the system. The whole sixth chapter is about a lawyer named Bryan Stevenson who is an advocate for both Mark and Roy. Stevenson states, “I reject the view that the world is divided into two sections: the victims of violent crimes and the offenders. Some of the offenders we are working with are people who have horrible, horrible losses as a result of violent crimes” (190).
I am not recommending this book to convince you one way or the other on the subject of capital punishment. I simply found these stories mind-boggling. I was enthralled to discover how these boys went from being innocent kids in Disney sneakers to hardened criminals behind bars. Their stories unfolded their motives which were often fueled by skewed logic and the manipulations of peers, adults, and drugs. Sad stories.
Although Kuklin’s book is persuasive, I didn’t feel like her views were jammed down my throat. She took the perspectives of many people involved in the legal process to develop her argument, and still managed to make the book interesting. It read nothing like an essay nor a legal report.
In addition to No Choirboy, I’d also recommend There Are No Children Here as a companion. It deals with children raised in ghettos.
(as published in The Foothill Breeze on 1/7/2010)

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