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The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

Do Not Pass Go

by Kirkpatrick Hill

When novels for young people touch on incarceration, they're usually either stories about a parent whose white-collar crime has suddenly lost the family its accustomed style of living or about inner-city kids struggling with or succumbing to the drift into criminal lives. The story that doesn't usually get told is that of a family getting quietly by before and getting by afterward, of kids incorporating the fact of an imprisoned parent into their lives and the visits into their days, and of genuine contemplation of the realities and consequences of even a comparatively short jail stint.

That's the story Kirkpatrick Hill tells in Do Not Pass Go. Her protagonist, Deet Aafedt, is a serious young guy; he loves his parents and his younger sisters, but he's a little concerned about their hectic lifestyle, which makes him feel "that he was surrounded by people who couldn't organize or plan, and sooner or later they always managed to catch him up in their mess." And this time it's some mess: his father, struggling to work a second job on top of his labors at a garage in their small Alaska town, has apparently been leaning on illegal stimulants to keep him going, and when a traffic stop by the police catches him with the goods, Mr. Aafedt ends up in jail.

At first the news is an ice-cold shock for Deet, making him ashamed and fearful of public taunting, but he soon discovers two important facts: that people can be wonderfully loyal (his friend Nelson silently makes it his job to stare down any schoolmate who seems to evince unseemly curiosity), and that many people have their own jail connections or experiences ("Deet thought about people telling you about their mistakes. They were giving you something very special, weren't they?"). When he starts visiting his father, he realizes that the difference he'd always assumed between ordinary people and prisoners is solely in his imagination -- his father's jailmates "looked like anyone else you might see in the streets," and he begins to get to know them through his father's stories and through acquaintanceship with other jail visitors. The book doesn't shy away from the tougher realities of jail, though: Deet's grandparents essentially disown their son, Deet's father realizes that he's had a more fortunate life than most of his fellow inmates (his friendly and helpful roommate Ronny, who has nobody in the world caring for him, is released only to commit a near-fatal assault that sends him right back inside), and Deet is shocked to glimpse his father shuffling in shackles as he's being transported for a hearing.

Hill is a solid and honest writer, and she's also a smart and deft one; her style remains accessible and her storytelling smooth and well paced even as she's walking Deet through serious contemplation of the issues surrounding incarceration and his family. Often this exploration takes place in his English assignments, wherein he's selecting historical quotations and writing essays about them, a device that gives some structure to Deet's considerations and also provokes the reader to contemplation along with him. It's totally in character for thorough, fair-minded Deet that those considerations include reexamining his own views, easing up on his formerly stern assessments of his parents' disorganized style once he himself has to handle the household while his mother now spends hours at her waitressing job. In another change in family dynamics, Deet finds himself sharing new things with his father ("Deet could hardly believe he was talking to Dad about books"); it's also clear that, despite his initial embarrassment, Deet retains and even increases his respect for his dad as a result of the way his father approaches his incarceration.

It's reported that there are over two million children in America with a parent in prison. Deet's experiences may not be typical, but they'll make readers think about what that situation would be like -- or, for those who are already there, it may give them a new way to think about their own families. "Jail wasn't the end of the world," a much-wiser Deet realizes; while the book never overtly goes beyond that to make the point that many situations are more survivable than one might imagine, it's an extrapolation that perceptive readers will make, and they'll find this illustration of the fact both readable and reassuring.

Deborah Stevenson, Editor


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Cover image from Do Not Pass Go ©2007; jacket background photograph Image Source/Alamy; photograph of boy ©2007 Getty Images. Used by permission of Margaret K. McElderry Books.

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This page was last updated on February 1, 2007.