A Black sixteen-year-old boy gets arrested and put on trial because he is presumed to have been involved in a drugstore robbery that resulted in the murder of the store’s owner. While this may unfortunately seem likely to be a headline in a newspaper this day in age, it’s also the synopsis of Monster by Walter Dean Myers.
Myers takes some creative risks when structuring this novel by telling the story in the format of a script—a risk that greatly pays off. Steve Harmon, the boy on trial, tries to cope with the way his life has taken a turn for the worse by writing his trial and experiences as a film. While in the courtroom, it reads like an episode of Law and Order with the lawyers questioning witnesses on the stand and objecting to their opponents, but it also includes scenes from Harmon’s past as well as scenes from inside his cell. Juxtaposed with these surface-level narratives are short journal-like passages by Harmon as he tries to understand and interpret his feelings and emotions brought upon by facing a terrible, terrible possible outcome: the death penalty.
Much like the way in which it’s told, this story is straight-forward and to the point. It’s about the trial and how Harmon is dealing with it. There aren’t any subplots and there isn’t really any character development other than Harmon himself, revealing his depth through flashbacks and inner thoughts written out in the journal passages, eventually leading up to the verdict.
There is a verdict at the end, but to the reader, whether Harmon did or did not commit the crime is left ambiguous. What Myers is saying is that the crime isn’t important—it could have been any crime. What is important is the trial itself and what it represents on a cultural level: the all too familiar narrative of a Black man facing jail time.
At one point during the story, Harmon’s lawyer explains to him that jurors in cases like his come to the trial with prejudices already against the defendants: “You’re young, you’re Black, and you’re on trial. What else do they need to know?” The jurors already have a guilty image of Harmon in their minds, even though they aren’t supposed to, which makes it more difficult to defend him. If he’d been white, it wouldn’t be as difficult. This is wrong.
However, this story tries to right that, or at least shed some light on this issue. Reading this book gives you an inside look at these cases. You’re not just watching a simplified version on the nightly news—“Another Black man arrested for (insert crime here)”—you’re getting to know that each defendant is not defined by their race and you’re getting to know that these prejudices that seep into the criminal justice system are real and they do exist. And you’re learning what affects—both emotionally and physically—these prejudices have on a person facing the death penalty who represents an entire community.
This book is a quick read. Compared to previous books that have taken me a week or longer to finish, I was done with this book in only a few short hours. And that’s what makes this book so impactful. Myers isn’t trying to tell a fancy-schmancy elaborate epic that goes on for pages and pages and pages and pages. He’s trying to combat a social issue with these characters and these situations—he tells the reader the problem, shows the reader what affects this problem has on a community, and says “The End”. I highly encourage you to read it.