Book review: 'Kindness for Weakness' reveals lost boys behind bars

Shawn Goodman calls upon his experience working in several New York juvenile justice facilities


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From the first page of Shawn Goodman's "Kindness for Weakness" (Delacorte Press, $16.99, ages 15-18) the reader knows that something bad will happen to the main character, James. As James is lifted into a medical helicopter, he wants to speak to the paramedics but can't.

Instead of offering reassurance, the paramedic's promise of "You're going to make it. I swear you're going to be OK" reveals the sad truth. James is fighting for his life.

When Mr. Goodman flashes back to the beginning of 15-year-old James' story, James is fighting for his life in a different way. He's lonely, abused and neglected.

At school, friendless James speaks only with his teacher Mr. Pfeffer. Through their conversations about books and James' inner yearnings for a loving family, friends and a place where he belongs, we get to see that he is a good, thoughtful kid with no direction and little hope.

His father left when he was younger. His mother is an alcoholic who barely pays their bills, and her live-in boyfriend, Ron, abuses them.

To avoid his home life, James wanders through town alone. He wishes he could be like his older brother, Louis. Louis left home to escape Ron. He's a body builder. And he has his own car and a business, and he gets lots of girls.

James idolizes his brother, but his adoration is misplaced. When Louis asks James to be his business partner, it's clear that the younger boy is being used. Louis is a drug dealer who needs a runner.

James sees Louis' offer as a chance to earn money, friendship and freedom. But James is predictably caught and arrested as Louis drives away.

James refuses to give up his brother. The next day he goes before a judge and is sentenced to 12 months in juvenile detention.

The speed with which James is shuffled through the justice system and incarcerated is shocking. Although he is technically guilty, he's a sympathetic character who doesn't fully grasp his predicament and isn't properly counseled.

Even before James enters the Department of Youth Services facility, he's warned about the treatment there. Another boy awaiting sentencing recounts his friend's tale of being beaten.

"Morton's the worst. Don't get sent to Morton," the boy cautions. James learns the truth in this when he doesn't stand quickly enough at the guards' commands during arrival and is violently restrained.

Now Mr. Goodman allows the seriousness of James' situation to sink in. The guards break James and the other young prisoners down with verbal and physical abuse. All freedom and fairness are removed. There is no logic in their treatment.

Two guards, Mr. Horvath and Mr. Pike, are especially sadistic and abusive. They use their absolute dominance to intimidate the boys into submission.

Procedures such as mandatory paperwork and trips to the nurse are supposed to protect the boys. But instead they are twisted to protect the guards. The boys are at the complete mercy of the prison staff.

James vows to stay out of trouble and do his time without incident. One boy tells him, "Watch yourself and don't trust no one." Another says, "It's OK to have friends on the outside but not in here."

But the advice conflicts with James' good nature. The lonely boy who had no friends at school finds himself becoming friends with the notorious Eddie Peach, or "Eddie Fruit" as the guards mock him.

Eddie's a repeat offender on his second trip to Morton. The fact that he's openly gay and comfortable with himself makes him a frequent target for the guards.

With Eddie, James begins to navigate life in the detention center. He goes to class, eats meals, does chores and has leisure time with the teens of Bravo Unit.

Two guards, Mr. E and Mr. Samson, seem to care for the boys. They lead group sessions and treat the boys with respect. But without Mr. E and Mr. Samson running interference around the clock the other guards continue their aggressive mistreatment.

As James' time at Morton continues, Mr. Goodman introduces a motley cast of young men with sad stories and varying degrees of hopelessness and violent aggression. In realistic fashion, none of the boys are purely good or purely bad. This includes James, who continues to ponder his life, his crime and, most frequently, his character.

Mr. Goodman is steadily leading his character toward a violent conclusion. And he masterfully creates a sense of impending doom as the reader remembers the opening scene -- an injured James being lifted into a medical helicopter. When the confrontation does come, we feel its inevitability, just as James has.

In "Kindness for Weakness" Mr. Goodman calls upon his experience working in several New York juvenile justice facilities. He forces readers to really think about these lost boys and the life circumstances that have led them to serve time in a detention center.

Instead of taking the easy way out, he creates a guilty character with a kind heart and places him in jail with boys -- and guards -- of ambiguous character. This realism extends to the violence, profanity and vulgarity that paint a believable backdrop for James' moral examinations.

In the end, Mr. Goodman does pull his punch, allowing James' struggle to make a difference instead of remaining just a sad tale about a sad boy. But teens will still appreciate the unblinking and serious honesty with which he speaks to them.

bookreviews

Erin Zambataro is senior librarian, children's and teen services, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Allegheny branch.


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