Reviewer Tom Pope: Tom is a writing teacher and fiction coach who strives to spark the imagination. As a teacher, he works with tutoring services to help students organize essays and understand literary elements like the point of view. As a fiction coach, he aids authors to develop characters, brainstorm conflict pacing and design worldbuilding.
Follow Tom's BLOG that seeks to find the intersection where fiction meets reality. Through several sections, he shows the forces that surround characters in literature and the screen as the obstacles that shape us in reality.
Wrong Place, Wrong Legal System
Imagine the confusion in a teen as police sirens fill his mind from memories when he hears the judge’s sentence of life several sentences to lock him away.
The world’s a blur. Sirens screamed that night for Nathan as he helped a friend hold up a store. Not fair, that sentence. The world screamed as he wrapped his arms around himself, trying to think it out. Mom’s home didn’t care, dad’s rigid mind wouldn’t listen. Every time he tried to connect, a person or rule shut him down.
And now, he would face those tunnels of prisons instead of the tunnels of sand that he once thought as a child to create in the desert. He flinched from thinking of those inmates who would attack him in the john. From thinking of those officers who smiled when they saw a bloody face.
How could life sentences hit him when no killing happened? How could he be tried as an adult when he was a teen? How could he be charged with several counts of kidnapping when no hostage in the store left the store?
Nicholas Frank’s book, Destructive Justice, asks those questions as he brings a story from real life of the torments a father and new wife face trying to help Nathan. Frank details the move-by-move struggle of raising a child to a teen while the child’s urge to think beyond many norms goes unheard. The child emerges craving social contact only to lose every aspect of stretching out to expand.
Nathan must have felt suffocated. The legal system Frank portrays grips the reader to see how a prison system takes humanity away from people who need to connect more than most people. Frank supplies the reader with insights from research by many groups about the impact of a lack of rehab, how the education of teens affects their social development, and the limits that important lawyers face who lack funds and time to see vital details.
How can a legal system be fair when a judge refuses to look at oppressive acts by the sheriff’s men? How can another lead to verify those acts be denied by the court? And how can an eyewitness to Nathan be denied the right to testify?
Frank takes the reader from a comfortable chair of the usual to a major set of legal questions that bother more people than criminals. But Frank’s story of Nathan could have been aided by two key tools of storytelling — use of the point of view, and “Showing” readers instead of “Telling” them.
The tragedy is personal one for Frank as a father, a shared one for the family, including Maggie the new wife, and the other children. But, the focus of the problem is the legal system’s impact on coming-of-age Nathan.
The image on the book cover shows Nathan and the title makes the reader want to find out about how Nathan felt while going through the torture and turmoil. To have the father’s point of view creates a distance between the reader and Nathan. Much of Frank’s emotion revolves around how he has been affected and that creates another distance.
The struggle against the legal system yearns for a close inside-the-mind story of Nathan, yet Frank’s “telling” of the events and the emotion, through a textbook-style, separates the reader from the horrors seen through the mind of the most affected person.
Frank’s best use of “showing” happens late in the book when the father visits Nathan in prison and readers can see a letter from Nathan’s reaction to his confined space of 7 by 8 feet. His washing and bodily functions take place in a small sink. The beatings strike by skin-heads or killers wanting to take advantage of a younger person. Or beatings from a guard who hates his job.
The letter operates as a type of dialogue, which tends to “show” the reader specifics more than the “telling” style where the overviewing narrator informs the reader from a distance. Frank could have inserted dialogue right from the beginning.
The bitter taste of blood from a beating or the dank tunnels of the corridors reach most readers faster and with more impact as those scenes jump from the person in the story who is in motion. That works as a contrast to the “telling” style.
Having said that, Frank does bring the reader into a broken system that might seem off the radar for most. Frank’s story grips readers about the unfairness from many points along the judicial system.
He points out the difference between the law and the spirit of the law. For example, a law designed to punish kidnappers has wording that allows punishment of a criminal who does not take a hostage from a set location. How does that fit into the spirit of the law? How does a teen become prosecuted as an adult just because a public defender lacks resources compared to the prosecution?
Does the term criminal brand a person for life? Or can the criminal expect to develop peaceful skills when the prison environment destroys art, musical, reading and skill improvement tools?
One area Frank might have addressed centers on the injustice of the system aimed at minorities. Frank could have added some startling information about how youth violence dissipates after age 24 or how minorities suffer the legal breakdowns to a much wider degree.
In one crisis prior to Nathan’s crime, Frank found Nathan sitting in a parked van when Nathan possessed no license. The police officer felt strange because he could not arrest Nathan as no van had been claimed stolen.
However, had Nathan been African American, he would have been arrested by many officers. If minorities run into such a degree of the legal breakdown, then Nathan’s story becomes more unfair to those affected and to society as a whole.
Of course the lasting question might deal with solution. How does society include or bring back to life the ones it considers to be misfits? How does it accept a new definition of misfits if the old norms dominate thinking? How does the society define community when it can condemn troubled youth?
Follow Here To Purchase Destructive Justice: A Lost Boy, a Broken System and the Small Light of Hope