Unfolding the Map
My decision to start blogging and mapping American Gods, by Neil Gaiman, is sort of an experiment. It is my first foray into mapping a novel, and there will be places that the characters go that I'm not going to be able to follow on a map. However, this novel is about a man's journey, and like most journeys he not only travels on physical plane but also on the emotional and spiritual plane as well. In this case, the spiritual plane truly lives. I have started the map, the single point you see, at a state prison in Arkansas, and I'm going to be doing some guessing at a couple of places that Gaiman makes up, like Eagle Point, Indiana. So it goes. I'm journeying with Shadow, and I hope you enjoy the journey too.
The best thing - in Shadow's opinion, perhaps the only good thing - about being in prison was a feeling of relief. The feeling that he'd plunged as low as he could plunge and he'd hit bottom. He didn't worry that the man was going to get him, because the man had got him. He was no longer scared of what tomorrow might bring, because yesterday had brought it.
American Gods: Chapter 1
Shadow in Prison, Part 1
Every so often I have moaned and bewailed my life. Why can't things go my way? Why wasn't my childhood perfect? Why does everything seem to go against me? Sometimes I had these little outbursts against the universe even though my own choices had brought me to that low point. During my little pity parties, I had forgotten that at least I had the opportunity to keep struggling against life, and that I still had the freedom to make those little mistakes that seemed to make my life so difficult.
It wasn't until my wife and I started mentoring women newly released from prison that I learned that my little troubles didn't mean anything compared to others. The women I helped mentor had come from worse backgrounds than I did. By "worse" I mean that they were victims of terrible physical and sexual abuse. Their crimes were usually related to drug abuse and alcohol. They also often were mothers, further complicating issues when we tried to help reintegrate them into normal life. One woman we mentored had an ex-husband who had tried to have her killed, and was still trying to track her down.
I've only visited prisons, and fortunately have never had to live in one. Prison is its own society. Some convicted criminals find prison an opportunity for power, and prison gangs provide the vehicle for them to become powerbrokers in an enclosed system. Some find religion, and prison provides a way to explore their lives and give themselves in their brokenness over to a higher power. Some find it a respite from the streets, and if they have been there long enough or enough times, they have learned the system and how to integrate into it. Prisoners also face many of the same problems that they might face outside, but concentrated because it's a closed system. Addictions, predators, abusers (in the form of fellow prisoners but also in the form of sadistic prison officials). Life is hell for them, whether it is on the outside or the inside, and if a prisoner is going to make the most of the scraps of opportunity they have, they must have a lot of inner strength and be able to selectively use a host of personal skills to navigate this unforgiving world.
I found this song by Joan Baez for our musical interlude, which tells three different stories of three people in prison.
Shadow in prison, Part 2
In Neil Gaiman's American Gods, Shadow is in prison at the beginning of the book. He is determined to do his time, limit his contact with anyone, and get released. His only friend is a fellow convict named Low-Key, who gives him a contraband coin that Shadow uses to practice tricks and illusions. We'll learn more about Low-Key later. We don't know much, if anything, about the offense that landed Shadow in prison, nor do we know his real name. Like his chosen moniker, he wants to remain quiet and unobtrusive. He plans then to go home to his wife, Laura, get a job and never do anything that would risk a return to prison.
Most people who are in prison, except for the most hardened criminals and those who are there for the rest of their lives, have similar dreams. They plan to get out and stay out, and live a normal life. Unfortunately, there are traps all over. My wife and I, once a month, join a small group of people and bring dinner down to a halfway house in Albuquerque where we live. The men in the halfway house are all transitioning out of prison. They live in the house, try to find jobs, and try to get themselves on the right track. Unfortunately, the whiff of prison never leaves them, and makes getting back to normal difficult if not impossible. They must always disclose their offenses when applying for jobs and applying for rental housing, which severely limits what's available to them. They may have lost all of their identification, and therefore must spend hours filling out tedious forms and working their way through the bureaucracy. They must report to a parole or probation officer regularly, and that officer has full discretion to determine that they are in violation and send them back to prison on a moment's notice.
The jobs they are able to get are often minimum wage jobs, even if they happen to have more advanced training. The housing that they are able to get is often located in the worst neighborhoods. Of course, this puts them right back into the very environments that they have been trying to escape. Or perhaps they are released back into dysfunctional support systems. It takes one turn of fate, such as a tragedy or accident, or a series of bad days filled with job rejections and hours of tedium in faceless and uncompromising bureaucratic rule, regulations and red tape, or a troublesome character from that bad former life coming back into contact, to send them back on a spiral into the habits and actions that got them into prison in the first place.
We'll see the same thing happen to Shadow. An unexpected tragedy occurs, and his plans to return to normalcy are dashed. This tragedy, the death of his wife just days before he is to be released from prison, means his life will never be the same. Will this tragedy bring him on a circle that leads him back around to prison?
As I mentioned above, sometimes people find themselves in prison. For Shadow, this tragedy is the opening act of a sort of passion play that will challenge everything he knows about himself. It will be a journey that not only takes him all ove the map, but to places beyond the map. Like Odysseus of Greek legend, he will come face-to-face with himself, despite the pulls of mythology old and new. Shadow will also redefine himself in the process.
If you want to know more about the US prison system and the challenges for ex-convicts
Atlantic Monthly: When They Get Out
Federal Bureau of Prisons
Human Rights Watch World Report 2013: US and prisons
New York Times: After Prison, a Bill to be Paid
Wikipedia: Incarceration in the United States
Next up: Little Rock, Arkansas