Friday, July 16, 2010

Book Review: Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman

Wow, every person's nightmare. You've made some questionable decisions in your past (and let's face it, who hasn't?) but you've grown up, you've moved on. You've got a real job, a significant other, a real apartment, and then one day the cops come calling to tell you you've been indicted federally.

The very beginning of this book explaining Piper's crime and how she became involved in drug trafficking is quite the horror story that all upper-middle-class white bread college students should be required to read so they'll think twice about seemingly minor acts of rebellion, and getting involved with inappropriate partners. (I am upper-middle-class white bread myself and went to an elite private college too. I could totally see how this could have happened to many of my friends. I'm too much of a control freak and a chicken - I was never much of a rebel - but this was a completely understandable situation.) But eventually she does have to report to a Federal Detention Center and serve her 15 month sentence.

I wasn't quite sure what to expect. I've read a few books on the prison system but never from an inmate's point of view (I very highly recommend Newjack which is from a correction's officer's side.) I personally identified a lot with Piper, but I also thought she might be like one of those girls I didn't like in college - the ones who thought they were being so different and rebellious by not following the rules even though that's a cliche itself, expecting to get everything handed to them nonetheless, who were obnoxious and didn't care, and just basically brats who were rebellious as long as Daddy's money held out. But she wasn't. She was much more like me and my friends. After college, she didn't rally know what she wanted to do except that she didn't want to go home, so she stayed in her college town waiting tables, and got mixed up with the wrong crowd. But they weren't skanky, trashy dealers - they were world-travellers, well-educated, non-users. Just doing things outside of the system.

Piper is understandably terrified of going in, and has no idea what to expect despite her research. Luckily she's in a minimum-security "camp" (like where Martha Stewart went. In fact, her time and Martha's overlaps, but Martha did not end up in Danbury where Piper was.) The other felons are in either for very low-level drug offenses like Piper's, or white-collar crimes. There's a disturbing number who are in for absurdly long sentences for what seem like very minor crimes (taking phone messages for example), and many who are elderly and in ill health. What made me smile and identify even more with Piper is that as soon as she got there, her friends started sending her books in the mail. Many, many books, magazines, and more books. (That's exactly what I would have done in her shoes!) I was a little worried the reputation she'd get as a nerd would have a negative impact on her perception by her fellow inmates but it didn't seem to (in fact a lot of people sought her out so they could borrow books.)

I don't know if I could have done it. But Piper does. With dignity, honesty, and a respect for (nearly) everyone she encounters, this is a superb cautionary tale. I do wish I knew what happened to some of the people she served with, and if she ever did anything on the outside about the atrocious conditions in some of the prisons. I hope there's an afterword in the paperback.


Kate said...

Sounds like a great read! Thanks for sharing - I linked your review as part of my Friday Five at Kate's Library!

Suzanne said...

I've seen many positive reviews about this book. It looks like one definitely worth checking out.

*sigh* Another book to add to the never ending to-read mountain......

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