My choice book for this week was Walter Dean Myers' Monster. I knew I wanted to read this book right away when I saw it on the list, simply because Walter Dean Myers has long had a reputation for being controversial. The only other book of his that I've read, Fallen Angels, is #24 on the American Library Association's list of 100 most frequently challenged books of the 1990s due to its gratuitous use of profanity, racial slurs, and gruesome wartime violence, so as a connoisseur of controversial books I knew I wanted to read Monster from the moment I saw it as an option for the class.
Monster is the story of the trial of Steve Harmon, a sixteen-year-old black kid from Harlem who is charged as an adult for being an accessory to a robbery/murder. He faces a lengthy jail sentence, and possibly the death penalty. Did he do it? Was he just in the wrong place at the wrong time? Neither Myers nor Steve ever definitively says one way or the other, and that's what makes the book interesting. Since it's never made explicitly clear if Steve is guilty or innocent, the reader is left to draw his or her own conclusions. The prosecution labels Steve and his fellow defendants "monsters," a hefty accusation. Steve is struck by the surreal quality of the trial, comparing it to a movie. Indeed, the entire story is told from Steve's perspective in the form of diary entries and scenes from a screenplay (Steve is a budding film student), adding his own unique outlook on events in the trial as they unfold. Most memorably (at least in my opinion), a voiceover using Steve's own voice cautions him as he sits in his prison cell, trying to hide his tear-streaked face under a blanket, that this is reality, he can't hide or run from it, and must deal with it as best he can.
Monster raises a lot of interesting questions about the American justice system and the route that youthful offenders take through it. Steve is a kid from the rough-and-tumble (and historically black) New York City neighborhood of Harlem, a strike against him already. Myers' choice of where Steve's race and where he grew up was, at least in my mind, 100% deliberate. As much as I hate to say it, white Americans tend to view ethnic enclaves like Harlem as bad neighborhoods that one would do well to stay away from, when in reality they are living examples of the vicious cycle of broken homes, drug abuse, crime, and incarceration. Living in a rough neighborhood doesn't automatically make you a bad person, and it's hard to break out of an environment like that when you don't have the means, but it seems like the prosecution and the jury has condemned Steve already just because of his background. There's an overwhelming of sense of "guilty until proven innocent" here--that, since Steve has been arrested in connection with the crime, he comes from a bad area of town, he's black, and the arresting officers and witnesses wouldn't lie about the events of the crime, he must be guilty. I see a lot of this going around now with the Ground Zero Mosque situation in New York. People who are against the mosque's construction (actually, it's not even a mosque, it's an open community center that happens to have Muslim prayer rooms) have a mindset that goes something like this: "Muslims destroyed the World Trade Center and killed 3000 people on 9/11. There was no denunciation of the attacks from the Muslim world"--actually, there were, but that's what you get when Fox is the #1 news network in the country--"so therefore all Muslims must either be terrorists or terrorist sympathizers." Never mind the fact that Muslim-American citizens were killed when the towers collapsed, these people think that you have to prove you're an American first, Muslim second, and that the onus is firmly on Muslim-Americans to "prove their loyalty," so to speak. But how can they do that, when conservative white America has already socially and ideologically convicted them of treason and terrorism? Monster is a lot like that: even if the reader doesn't know whether or not Steve is guilty, it's more likely than not that he's a victim of circumstance, and those sitting in judgment have convicted him in their minds as a proxy of the overall problem.
I'll get down off my soapbox now and talk about the book itself for a bit. Myers' use of a screenplay/diary format serves two purposes. Not only is it a unique presentation of the story, it also allows the reader insight into Steve's deepest thoughts (and there are a lot, considering he's on trial for his life). Steve's choice of a screenplay to keep a record of the events of the trial, his observations about it, and his reflections on his own past, future, and possible fate make him both believable and sympathetic. Myers makes Steve's guilt ambiguous, and Steve himself never cops to anything. But he's a sixteen-year-old film student on trial for murder who shuttles back and forth between a forbidding courthouse full of biased white people and a maximum-security prison full of hardened criminals. My heart went out to him immediately.
The screenplay format also affords Steve the opportunity to act as his own conscience, voice of reason, or whatever the situation demands. In the very first scene, he explains that the best time to cry in prison is when a fight breaks out, so that way no one can see your tears and beat you for being weak. Later, he tries to hide his head under a blanket to shield his eyes from the harsh realities of the cellblock, but a voiceover in the screenplay--in my mind I read it with Steve's voice--tells him that hiding under a blanket will not change anything; he is still in prison, no matter what he does, and he must deal with it. He's being charged as an adult, after all, so he must deal with his problems like an adult.
Steve's screenplay is his way of coping with his current situation, but it also functions as a mirror for his life. He ruminates on what he's done or not done that brought him to this point, and he tries to make sense of who he is and what will become of him. His father won't look at him. The jury is not disposed to acquit him. His lawyer isn't confident of their success. The prosecution wants the death penalty. All that presses down on Steve's mind, and the screenplay allows him to make sense of it all on paper. However, the reader never finds out what his ultimate conclusion is. The book ends with his acquittal, and even though he walks, Steve still can't answer the question, "Who am I?" The reader can trace his evolution throughout the story, but without a final realization, the reader is left wondering whether Steve can reclaim his life and move on, or become just another street thug like the prosecution accused him of being.