Book club selection was both window and mirror to readers

Reuben Jonathan Miller sees systemic racism at the root of mass incarceration.  “How do you arrest a 12-year-old girl?  How do you arrest a 10-year-old boy?”  Miller asks.  “This is what racism does, it doesn't allow us to see them as children.”

Reuben Jonathan Miller sees systemic racism at the root of mass incarceration. “How do you arrest a 12-year-old girl? How do you arrest a 10-year-old boy?” Miller asks. “This is what racism does, it doesn’t allow us to see them as children.”

Little, Brown

For many readers, books are magical. They provide imaginative transportation to other worlds. They can be cherished friends to revisit.

Books can reflect and reveal like a mirror or a window.

“Halfway Home: Race, Punishment, and the Afterlife of Mass Incarceration” by Reuben Jonathan Miller is both window and mirror.

The FYI Book Club recently met at the Kansas City Public Library for a tour of the Evicted exhibit and a related discussion of “Halfway Home.” Readers noted that what started out to be a window slowly turned into a mirror.

Miller collected data about the lives of 250 people — most poor and Black — who had felony convictions and studied their lives from youth through release from prison and sometimes to reincarceration.

Lisa Timmons, of Overland Park, listened to the book in audio. “The statistics go by so quickly and they are mind boggling. But when you pay attention to people’s stories, you create a greater connection to the material. This is an important book to read. It’s an uncomfortable book to read. But it’s so accessible and Miller’s storytelling is riveting.”

Susan Jackson, of Kansas City, agreed that the statistics were shocking. “But reading these personal stories grab you even more than the numbers. The book moves so quickly. You want to stop and think about it. And it is an emotional read and the content is difficult to absorb.”

Judith Reagan, of Kansas City, said, “Miller puts a human face on these unbelievable numbers.”

Readers acknowledged that none of them had any experiences with incarceration or knew anyone who had been incarcerated. They found the stories of Ronald and Jeremiah (the author’s brother) compelling. At first they talked about the legal injustices both men experienced.

What disturbed Jonne Legg, of Kansas City, most were the stories of the plea deals.

“These lawyers are reckless and uncaring and negligent,” she said. “These trades they make for their clients, swapping out one crime for another to secure a shorter sentence for a crime you didn’t commit.”

The readers noticed details in the men’s lives that resonated with their own, and the book became a mirror as well as a window. They noted the pivot points in a life that can cause immense change.

One reader shared a story of housing insecurity. Another related the unjust arrest and imprisonment of a former student. One talked about coming too close to losing a home during the housing and loan crisis of 2008.

Jackson noted something the author touches on in the book often missing from news media coverage.

“In these personal stories, you see the lead-up to the personal crisis,” she said. “Whereas if you’re watching the news or reading the newspaper, you just get the crisis incident. You don’t get the person’s backstory and history, and that you can remove the human connection a viewer or reader can make. I appreciated Miller doing this in his book about him.”

Timmons saw the connections between the book and the exhibit on display in the Central Library.

Halfway Home cover.jpg
“Halfway Home” by Reuben Jonathan Miller Little, Brown

“We’re all just one disaster away from a horrific life change. These are our neighbors, people we see every day. It could be someone we know. It could be us.”

The group acknowledged Miller’s primary point: Race makes all the difference in how life crises are managed. At this point the book became a window for the readers.

Jackson noted, “If you don’t know anyone who’s ever been evicted or incarcerated or food insecure, you don’t think about these issues. That’s why books like ‘Halfway Home’ are important.”

Join the club

The Kansas City Star and the Kansas City Public Library present a book-of-the-moment selection every few weeks and invite the community to read along. To participate in the next discussion led by the library’s Kaite Stover, email kaitestover@kclibrary.org.

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