Monster--Walter Dean Myers
April 1999 by Amistad
FADE IN: INTERIOR: Early morning in CELL BLOCK D, MANHATTAN DETENTION CENTER.
Steve (Voice-Over)Sometimes I feel like I have walked into the middle of a movie. Maybe I can make my own movie. The film will be the story of my life. No, not my life, but of this experience. I'll call it what the lady prosecutor called me ... Monster.
This is one of those novels that has won so many awards and is a staple in so many Adolescent lit classes that you wonder if the actual book can live up to its reputation. Monster does. I sped through the book in just a couple of days and had only three pages to go when one of my classes began and I had to spend the whole class dying to know what happened.
Steve is on trial for murder. Witnesses say he was the lookout for some other guys who robbed a convenience store and shot the owner. The book is a screenplay, written by Steve, about the trial. I liked the screenplay format. It makes the book a quick read, and all that white space makes the book look accessible. Some readers see this as a ploy or gimmick, but I don't. I see it as a way for Steve to work through what was happening to him.
However, partly because of the format, we don't get to know Steven well. The novel only centers around the actual trial, not his life before. And despite being in his head the whole time, Steven is still a mystery to us at the end of the novel. He is an interesting character and I would have liked more background information about him and his family. I realize that this kind of goes against the point of the book (to determine Steve's guilt or innocence just with the limited evidence we get), but still.
I like how the book addresses the criminal justice system and the preconceived notions we have about the accused. We forget that in the eyes of the law, a defendant is innocent until the prosecution proves otherwise. This book also made me realize the difference between "innocent" and "not guilty." Maybe a particular person did commit a crime, but if there is no evidence to prove guilt, the law cannot touch them. In that light, I love how Myers leaves Steve's innocence or guilt ambiguous. I won't spoil the court verdict, but we really don't know whether Steve participated in the theft. Is he evading responsibility for his actions or being rightly served by justice?
This book also forces us to look at, in a very small degree, the violence that goes on in prisons. We tend to ignore the fate of inmates because we don't have to see them and subconsciously we think, "They broke the law, so they deserve what they get." But even criminals don't deserve to be assaulted and beat up on a regular basis. The novel deals with some heavy, mature subjects, but it is actually pretty light on swearing, which surprised me.
This book made me think about a lot of things. I liked it, and I think it is a book that would resonate with a lot of teens.