Benson nails retelling of prison escape

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Ben Stiller should have talked to Michael Benson. There’s a great risk in retelling true events, especially events of the recent past. Michael Benson wrote “Escape From Dannemora.” He got it right.

The book is a heavily annotated text with information drawn from interviews, press releases and public records. It’s a massive amount of information, and to be successful Benson must achieve two goals. First, he must make sense of it all. Second, he must make the reader care. After all, the ending of the story is known.

He accomplishes both goals easily. As a reader who lived in Plattsburgh during the escape, with my farm easily just an afternoon’s walk from the prison, I was horrified to learn details of Matt and Sweat’s early crimes. The retelling was especially awful since so much focused on the people affected by the criminals and the victims themselves. Benson takes that information as well as facts from the time of the escape and the trials after and organizes it for easy understanding.

He accomplished the second goal by using engaging writing, interspersing details of the escape with details of the past, and looking at the history of Dannemora itself. He deftly handles the issue of Joyce Mitchell. That character alone will make or break any retelling. Benson refuses to indict her with an opinion; he simply states the known facts and lets the reader’s sympathies lie where they will (or won’t.)

There are a few technical glitches in the book that don’t take much away from the entire work. First, the opening chapter is partially written in second person. “You were tunneling…” “You shimmy down.” Within a few pages, Benson switches his writing to a generalized third person and leaves behind what feels like a gimmick to draw the reader’s attention. Gimmicks aren’t necessary when he settles into his natural writing style. Second, there are places when the necessity of compiling massive amounts of information makes the book feel fragmented.

While Benson easily achieves the two goals of compiling information and writing a captivating story, he achieves something more difficult. He illuminates the relationship between the Dannemora prison and the community it resides in, with all the complexities inherent between them. He describes what the communities gave up–mostly unwittingly–in exchange for recapturing the escapees. (Think about Fourth Amendment constitutional rights, e.g. search and seizure and wiretapping by local officials.) He delves into what allowed the escape to occur. Yes, it was partly due to refusal of state officials to listen to local requests and it was partly due to complacency since an escape seemed so unlikely. It was due to lack of psychological training of contract employees. But ultimately it was due to two men with utter disregard to the rules of society. While the book doesn’t give the Dannemora prison a “free pass,” it clearly explains why the prison is needed in the first place.

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