Monster by Walter Dean Myers has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.
Steve may have made some poor decisions in the last 16 years, but he’s not a monster. At least he doesn’t think he is. But not everyone agrees with Steve, least of all Sandra Petrocelli, the attorney who is prosecuting him for felony murder. Thankfully, Steve’s lawyer, Kathy O’Brien, is doing her best to make the jury see him as a human being.
In his journal, Steve secretly admits to being involved in a drugstore robbery that left a man dead. Steve was supposed to make sure no police officers were in the store before the robbery occurred. Because he gave no signal after leaving the store, Steve doesn’t believe that his peripheral involvement makes him guilty of criminal activity. On the witness stand, he denies all connection to the murder.
An aspiring filmmaker, Steve copes with the stress of jail and the trial by writing a movie script about his life and experiences following his arrest and detention. (The script comprises most of the novel’s text, interspersed with brief journal entries.) As the trial progresses, Steve alternately chronicles the courtroom proceedings and the brutality of his fellow inmates. He slowly loses hope that he will be acquitted and struggles to cope with the reality that he may spend the next two decades of his life behind bars.
The testimonies finally wind to a close and the jury delivers a verdict. Steve has been found not guilty. He reaches to hug his lawyer, the woman who showed the world that he is not a monster. But Kathy O’Brien refuses to return his hug. She may have convinced the jury that Steve was human, but she couldn’t convince herself.
Steve didn’t think he was a monster, but now he’s not so sure.
Steve’s mother brings him a Bible and asks him to read Psalm 28:7 aloud. He does so, although he doesn’t feel like rejoicing or singing praises. Steve wonders if, when the guards searched the Bible, they found anything like grace, salvation or compassion.
A preacher visits the jail to ask the inmates if they would like to talk or pray. Steve wants to go forward, but another prisoner says that it’s too late to pretend to be holy. Steve attends church services while in jail. A prisoner has a tattoo of the Devil.
Steve’s parents visit him regularly in jail, and Steve wishes that he could tell his brother, Jerry, that he loves him. Throughout the trial, Steve’s mother leaves cleaned shirts and underwear for him. She tells him that she knows he is innocent, regardless of what happens. Although she and Steve’s father try to be upbeat, Steve feels that she is mourning him as though he were dead.
After his arrest, Steve’s relationship with his father is tense. During a supervised visit to the jail, Steve’s father shares both his affection and his emotional turmoil with his son before telling him that everything will be OK. After the trial, however, Steve’s father moves away. Although he wants to believe that Steve did nothing wrong, he doesn’t understand the choices Steve made and is no longer sure who Steve is.
The prison guards are harsh and crude. They show no compassion toward the inmates and make it known that they are betting on the outcome of the trial and severity of the sentencing.
Steve remembers wanting to emulate the tough, streetwise men he now recognizes as criminals. Steve admires Mr. Sawicki, the teacher who leads Steve’s film club.
Uses of profanity include f–got and d–n.
In prison, violence is normalized, threats are commonplace and strangers find reasons to hurt each other. Inmates have been jailed for various crimes, including robbery, assault, manslaughter and murder. Prisoners beat up inmates who show signs of weakness. A prisoner is hit in the face with a tray so hard that he bleeds. Two prisoners fight at a church service. One man has a handmade knife. Steve is afraid all the time.
Steve throws a rock that hits a young woman. The tough-looking young man who was walking with her mistakenly thinks that Steve’s friend Tony threw the rock and punches Tony. Tony tells Steve that he wants to get an Uzi and blow the young man’s brains out.
Black-and-white pictures of the deceased drugstore owner, Mr. Nesbitt, are shown as evidence. Steve finds them difficult to view. Evidence is also presented that proves Mr. Nesbitt died by drowning in his own blood.
When a detective testifies that the death penalty may be considered, Steve imagines a guard inserting a plug into his rectum so he won’t defecate during his execution. A witness admits to taking part in a gang initiation that involves fighting a gang member and knifing a stranger in the face. A neighbor mentions that a local child was shot while sitting on a doorstep.
An inmate testifies that he was being sexually harassed by other (male) prisoners and that they threatened to gang-rape him. Steve listens as a man in his cell is beaten and raped. Whenever they aren’t talking about hurting one another, prisoners talk about sex. A guard mockingly offers to find a boyfriend for an inmate. Another guard makes a sexual joke about one of the female jurors.
Drugs: An inmate is accused of possessing drugs with the intent to sell them. Women speculate that the drugstore was robbed by addicts who needed money for drugs. A character smokes marijuana.
Suicide: Belts are taken away from prisoners to make it more difficult for them to kill themselves. Steve wonders if the inability to commit suicide is part of the prisoner’s punishment. He wonders if he would commit suicide if he were sentenced to 20 years in jail.
Lying: Steve and other inmates lie while on the witness stand.
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