This is not a happy family book, so you may want to wait until Spring to read it. I ordered it after following its appearance on my friend Nichole’s TEN BOOKS THAT INFLUENCED ME list. We shared a love for eight of the ten, one was A Prayer for Owen Meany (and Nichole is the reason our staff cat has that name; it’s the only Owen that will ever grace our shelves) and one was Random Family. I love ethnographic studies, so I ordered it.
Densely packed, this is the summation of 11 years of work with people floating through – or perhaps drowning in – the justice system. I’m not sure the term “social justice” appears often, but the whole book is an indictment of the idea that poverty is the fault of the poor. And it’s a really ringing indictment. Roaches falling by the dozens into carefully chosen food, men coming up fire escapes into the windows of “free” housing provided a woman with four daughters, the inner workings of a prison hierarchy for education and a future–it’s going to set you back a bit.
Jack liked the book because, as a prison visitor, he’s seen much of what the men go through trying to form outside attachments and secure stability. LeBlanc didn’t use the words “search for security, love, maybe some significance” very often, either, but the whole book is one mad shuffle between family members looking for those things, mostly in that order.
Coco and Jessica, the main female characters, are clearly drawn as real, lovely, flawed, and stuck. One of the questions in the book group guide at the end of this book reminds readers that LeBlanc was in the community for eleven years, part and parcel to all that is described, yet she doesn’t appear as a character.
That’s one of the book’s quirks; LeBlanc has made nothing up, it’s all from interviews and observation. Yet she is invisible, and the book is not so much narrated by an invisible person as scatter pelleted by some unseen weapon. Sentence after sentence, some of them barely hooked together, scene after scene, description after description, and although the whole thing circles a spiral of recurring events, it doesn’t sound the same. LeBlanc writes like a machine gun.
Not everyone will like this book. It’s less narrative arc or journalism than ethnographic description. It doesn’t ask “why,” just tells “how.” I’d like to say it’s haunting, but in all honesty, as someone so far removed from what LeBlanc describes, the word might be daunting. How can anyone make economic inequality going this far wrong, better?
LeBlanc did an interview ten years after the book’s 2003 publication; you can find it here.