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book review: "Work Like Any Other"...

Wednesday, March 8, 2017
.... by Virginia Reeves, published in 2016. Randomly chosen off the shelf at the public library. An interesting story about a man sentenced to the Alabama State Prison for accidently causing the death of another man. Roscoe T. Martin works for the Alabama Power Company, and after marrying, goes with his wife to live on the farm left to her by her deceased father. Roscoe thinks he can run the farm more efficiently by stealing electricity, and has the skill to runs lines onto the property.

A man is electrocuted, then  Roscoe along with another farm worker are accused of homicide. Both are found guilty and and sentenced. The farm worker, who is a Negro, has lived on the property for many years, laboring alongside Roscoe's father in law, and then Roscoe. He is forced into hard labor in a coal mine in northern Alabama, a common occurrence at the time. He is eventually freed early when his arm is amputated in a mining accident, and returns to the farm to live.

The story tells of Roscoe's time in the state prison system, when most of the convicted men are illiterate,often railroaded with insufficient legal representation.  Places where attempted escapes are resolved by having fellow inmates chase runaways with trained blood hounds, unacceptable behavior causes men to be forced into hot boxes, live on bread and water, other tales of the harsh realities of being incarcerated in the early 1900's. I suspect it is fairly accurate, though prettied up to be more palatable for the readers.

Popular moves like "Cool Hand Luke" and "Oh, Brother" are fairly accurate depictions of prison life. Things we can laugh at from the vantage point of  the present day, but a really hard life for those sentenced. No white collar, country clubs prisons in that era. You can envision that jails and state prisons of that time were run like little fiefdoms, with the guards having many opportunities to dispense favors and punishments at their discretion. The warden being the ruler, and the inmates having no recourse if sexually assaulted, or otherwise mistreated/humiliated in untenable situations.

There are several times in the story when Roscoe goes before the parole board, but early release is denied. He is released before completing his twenty year sentence, but when he is freed, his wife has secretly divorced him, and given the farm to the other family who lived and worked there. A story, I think, that is a lesson in learning acceptance. Over the years, Roscoe becomes resigned to his situation, and is eventually able to make peace with things in life over which he has no control.

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