Shawn Benson rested his hands beside the novel in a classroom with bars outside its window.
Nine inmates sat in a circle, taking turns dissecting “The Alchemist” — a story about discovering one’s destiny.
“The book really spoke to me,” said Benson, who’d remained silent for nearly 90 minutes as others drew parallels between the plot and the twists and turns of their own lives.
“You’re gonna figure out who you are and who you really want to be,” he recalled someone telling him about prison. “The journey he’s on is the journey I’m on right now.”
There was no wine to sip on that night. No cheese to spread. For this was no ordinary book club. It marked one of the first inside a Minnesota penitentiary, and a rare chance for offenders to convene with community members as equals over literature.
Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell organized the inaugural event at Stillwater prison in Bayport this month, inviting a handful of friends and neighbors for a wide-ranging discussion with the incarcerated men, most of whom are serving life sentences for murder.
Visitors were met by a group of inmates who offered articulate and introspective answers to their own thought-provoking questions.
“You would never in a million years guess that they have taken someone’s life,” said Schnell, who hand-picked the book in hopes of triggering some self-reflection about each individual’s chosen path.
“It gives perspective to people that all of us are more than one single story.”
“The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho chronicles the adventures of Santiago, an Andalusian shepherd boy whose quest to find buried treasure helps uncover his true “Personal Legend.”
In a room peppered with posters advocating loyalty, respect and perseverance, the men allowed themselves to be vulnerable in front of perfect strangers about their own journeys — each of which has included unexpected detours.
Michael Medin, who started penning novels while imprisoned, pointed to omens in the book that helped guide the protagonist. Real life offers fortuitous warnings, too, he said, but not everyone chooses to take notice.
“I believe God put a lot of people in my path that I didn’t listen to,” Medin said. “I listened to the wrong people. My heart was set on the wrong treasure.”
Amid their spirited critiques, prisoners spent time analyzing one of the book’s most recognizable passages: “When a person really desires something, all the universe conspires to help that person to realize his dream.”
David Brom took that line to heart. He found comfort in the idea that some greater power might be aiding him in achieving his goals.
“When I look back, there have been some dark and difficult moments,” said Brom, who’s been locked up for 30 years. “But I’ve encountered the right person at the right time — an opportunity came up that I didn’t think would ever exist and transformed who I was.”
Across the table, Lavon Johnson steered the discussion toward the role of love and faith in the novel. Every time Santiago hit a bump in the road, his mind was pulled back to the woman he hoped to marry and his desire to return to her.
“All of us have made mistakes and ... scorned some of those people who loved us in spite of those decisions,” said Johnson, an accomplished poet. “We have to have faith that the actions within our character will help people see past the one thing that got us here.”
‘Writing is a necessity’
Many of the book club participants are avid readers and creative artists who have found purpose within the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop. In less than a decade, the nonprofit has spread to every state-run adult corrections facility, where students are immersed in a wide range of literary genres, from fiction to memoir, playwriting to poetry.
Members of the Stillwater writers’ collective agonize over their own works — often in between assigned prison jobs and online higher education classes.
“They’re smart,” said Jennifer Bowen Hicks, who founded the organization in 2011. “They’re really writing at a graduate level and beyond, in many cases.”
What visitors may find most surprising is just how supportive they are of one another, she said.
Sarith Peou told the group that when he first came to prison in 1996, he didn’t know how to string together a paragraph. He threw his first story in the toilet, until a fellow inmate persuaded him to salvage it.
“I’ve been writing ever since,” he said, eliciting claps of approval. “Writing is a necessity.”
The experimental two-hour session grew out of an idea sparked by Schnell’s wife, Julie, who regularly attends a book club with friends. Although Shakopee women’s prison has hosted a monthly book club for more than 10 years, this is thought to be the first inside a men’s facility. Schnell hopes to replicate the event at other prisons across the state.
“Each of you are impacting us,” Julie Schnell said at the end of the evening, touching her heart. “It’s a gift to be here with you.”
Before heading back to their cells, the men gathered with their new friends for a group photo in front of the white board.
“So what’s the next book?” one of the men asked, drawing big smiles.