Monday, January 30, 2012

Monster by Walter Dean Myer

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An emotionally complex tale, Monster takes us into the world of the criminal justice system through the eyes of sixteen-year-old Steve Harmon, a high school student with a passion for filmmaking. Steve is on trial for felony murder, a charge that, if proven, carries the penalty of life in prison or death. It is, as his lawyer tells him, as serious as it gets (1). Steve is accused of being a lookout for a drugstore robbery that left the stores owner dead. This trial will change both his outlook on his life and actions and who he is.

As the novel opens, Steve writes from his cell in the detention center and captures the terror of being in prison. It is not about bars and being locked up, he tells us, it is about being alone when you are not really alone and about being scared all the time (4). It is clear that Steve is not a hard-edged juvenile delinquent, but rather an educated, artistic teenage who has landed in a horrific situation. Steve decides to record his trial in the form of a screenplay. Turning his experience into a movie, he hopes, will help him make sense of his situation and stem his overwhelming anxiety. The novel is written principally as this screenplay - a literal account of the legal proceedings - interposed with Steves journal entries, in which he gives voice to his inner turmoil. The two styles draw attention while keeping readers focused on the trial, the overshadowing event that will determine whether Steve has a future or not.

As the trial unfolds we learn that, whether or not he is guilty of murder, he is certainly guilty of associating with unsavory characters. Desiring to be player in his neighborhood, Steve apparently befriended a gang member and a felon. This was his first step toward his problematic situation and a memory he will return to often throughout the trial. Questioning his decision to make friends with these men begins his doubt about where his life is headed and how he got there.

The choices he has made carry immense consequences and Myers never lets up on the severity of Steves situation. Steve is forced into the process of defining himself as he listens to the prosecutor accuse him of walking a moral tightrope (61) and dismissing lawyers efforts to distance him from the other men on trial. During the trial he realizes how closely the other men and he are related. The more time Steve spends in jail, the more he begins to think like them; yet, this puts into perspective his life and how he wants to spend it. It is at this point Steve takes a closer look at his life and decides to change it instead of letting things just happen to him.

This is not a novel of transformation or redemption; it is a harsh coming of age story. After the end of the trial, Steve spends his time filming himself and his neighborhood from different angles in order to find where he fits in and how others perceive him. It is finding himself that will help him achieve his goals and realize where he belongs in life.

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