From Publishers Weekly
A Village Voice staff writer's feature-turned-book about the impact of the Rockefeller drug laws on one family, this narrative begs comparison with last year's bestselling Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble and Coming of Age in the Bronx. Like Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, Gonnerman has obviously done her homework. The story of Elaine Bartlett, a first offender sentenced to a staggering 16 years for drug trafficking, and the fate of her four children both during and after her incarceration, is told in encyclopedic detail, sometimes to a fault-including the entire texts of many letters, minutiae of clothing and even full grocery lists. Unlike LeBlanc's graceful prose, Gonnerman's style is utterly artless, occasionally to the point of awkwardness. But Gonnerman makes an excellent argument for the ways in which the New York criminal justice system, particularly the "tough on crime" measures imposed in the last three decades, fails poor and less educated people. She skillfully uses Bartlett, a tough, assertive woman who struggles to hold a job and keep her family together after their enforced years of separation, as an exemplar of the wide-ranging impact of incarceration on both ex-cons and the communities they leave behind, a social problem just beginning to be studied. This book takes its place as part of a current broad reconsideration of the war on drugs and the unprecedented prison-industrial complex it has created in America.
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For two and a half years, journalist Gonnerman shadowed recently released prisoner Elaine Bartlett, providing an intimate glimpse into the multiple difficulties associated with attempting to reassimilate into a society that is ill-prepared and often unwilling to assist ex-convicts. Convicted under the unforgiving Rockefeller drug laws, first-time offender Bartlett served 16 years in prison for selling cocaine. Attempting to reconnect with her four children, find a job, and acquire decent housing were all herculean tasks for the undereducated yet fiercely determined Bartlett. Although undeniably attached to her subject, Gonnerman nevertheless paints a fairly objective portrait of both her strengths and her failings as she struggles to overcome and conquer societal pressures and expectations. Refreshingly and bluntly honest, Bartlett eventually achieves a personal triumph when she becomes an eloquent activist campaigning against the brutally harsh drug laws that dictated her lengthy sentence. Guaranteed to raise both eyebrows and awareness, this powerful testament to tenacity raises important questions about this nation's inadequately funded and poorly designed reentry system for paroled inmates. Margaret FlanaganCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved