I am appreciating the National Book Award finalists this year because in reading them, I am breaking out of my comfort zone, just a little. In my previous life as a teen librarian, Lockdown was the kind of book that I would have recommended to teens, especially boys. I would have a general idea of what it was about ("Reese is a teen in juvenile detention, trying to survive until his release date."), but I would have missed out on an extremely thought-provoking novel.
Reese committed a burglary two years ago, stealing prescription pads from a doctor's office. At the beginning of the novel, Reese has just basically been surviving in juvenile detention. There isn't a lot of evidence that he has changed through this experience so far, but he hasn't gotten any worse, either. His family, on the other hand, is not doing so well. Reese was living with his mother, who is addicted to drugs. His older brother is a drug dealer and has also already been in juvenile detention. Reese's young sister has miraculously escaped all the trouble for now, and is holding out the only hope Reese can see.
While Reese's life on the outside is full of despair, his life on the inside is no better. There are frequent lockdowns on his unit, and the staff is cruel to the inmates. Reese's harsh reality is evident from the very beginning of the book. There are the title lockdowns - every inmate in their own cells, solitary detention, physical checks whenever an inmate has visitors or leaves the building, gangs... Myers does not shy away from the grittiness of juvenile detention, almost as a warning that there is nothing cool about prison. There is no humanity, except for the social worker on the unit who gets Reese a job working in a nursing home to help rehabilitate him.
One of the most striking things about Reese is the dilemma that he finds himself in. The drug dealer that he sold the prescription pads to blames Reese for someone's drug overdose. The police confront him in detention and tell him that he has three days to decide whether he will plead guilty or stand trial for a crime he didn't commit. Reese believes that if he has to stand trial, the jurors will never believe that he is innocent, so he feels that he must plead guilty. This is the source of much of the novel's tension - that Reese has no option because he has already been found guilty of a crime. You can feel his panic and worry for him as he contemplates his adult life spent in prison.
This is what Myers is best at - communicating the utter lack of possibility in the life of these prison inmates. The social worker continually reminds Reese that most of the young adults in juvenile detention will become adult prisoners. There is very little possibility for them in the real world, and as Reese realizes, they will often be blamed for additional crimes whether they were involved or not. It takes a strong person to rise above the reality. Is Reese that man?
This is a strong book by Myers. Since the National Book Award ceremony has already taken place, I know it didn't win. But Reese is a character full of the dichotomy of dreams and reality - one who doesn't have a lot of hope and yet chips out a small piece of hope for himself. Ultimately he fins a small measure of redemption.
Lockdown. Walter Dean Myers. Amistad: HarperCollins, 2010. Borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library