A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden

26 April 2013

A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden
by Stephen Reid
Published by Thistledown Press
Review by Hannah Muhajarine
ISBN 978-1-927068-03-8 $18.95

I decided to try A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden: Writing from Prison because both the form (short non-fiction essays) and the topic (prison, as one might deduce from the subtitle) are outside the usual scope of my reading. I expected to learn something, and I definitely did. The tone ranges from tragic to humorous to poignant and back, sometimes within a single essay. Alongside difficult topics such as drug and sexual abuse, there are lighter sections on writing a poem for a fellow inmate’s girlfriend (“Dear Mona, / Roses are dead / Violets are doomed / As will be you / If you don’t visit soon”) and the trials of filling out the “Psychopathy Check List Revised”.

The first essay describes the failed bank robbery which led to author Stephen Reid’s incarceration. The police chase through the streets of Victoria reads almost like a heist movie. But unlike a movie, there are real consequences to Reid’s actions, and he does not shy away from writing about the harm he caused to innocent civilians, as well as his own family. Next he moves further back in time to relate the painful experiences of his childhood, including a stint living in Vancouver’s East End. The next was one of my favourite essays, in which Reid enrolls in the “Intensive Therapy Violent Offender Program” and bonds with a motley group of inmates including one nicknamed “Spider Man”. Another interesting chapter is merely a brief scene: Reid sitting in the carving shed in the rain with two members of the Native Brotherhood, as he compares the traditional restitution process of the First Nations with the Correctional Service of Canada. My other favourite piece was on the inmates being allowed to vote in the 2004 federal election, and how different groups of prisoners align themselves with the different parties. The last few essays are very moving, dealing with Reid’s relationship with his younger daughter and the death of his close friend in prison in the United States, respectively. Reid’s writing, at other times full of unusual and irreverent turns of phrase, here is beautifully poignant.

Reid happens to be married to Susan Musgrave, whose novel Given I have also read. I enjoyed being able to step into Reid’s shoes and experience a life so unlike my own. Despite the sorrow of his situation, Reid’s writing on prison life is humorous and eloquent.


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