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A true story
BookShelf: Andrea Smith, prison librarian, offers five novels that illuminate universal truth.
We saw parallels into our own stories as women trying to make sense of the world around us and our place in it - the place we choose in the circumstances we are in.
-- Andrea Smith

by Andrea Smith

My mom has always been a huge fan of true stories. As a result, we've spent a lot of time watching movies that were "based on a true story." I remember once telling Mom that I didn't like whatever story we were watching. In fact, I think I called it dumb, and I was pretty emphatic about it.

Little did I know this would be one of the formative moments of my personal and professional life. "You don't get to not like it," she said. "That's someone's story. That's their life. You don't get to not like it, you get to listen."

She was and is right. You can take issue with the format, delivery or style, but you can't go to someone and say, "I don't like your story."

Which brings me to a diary. In March 1941, a 27-year-old Jewish student in Holland began a diary at the suggestion of her therapist after she sought help for depression and suicidal thoughts. She continued writing until November 1943, when she was murdered in Auschwitz. Now 60 years later, "Etty Hillesum: An Interrupted Life: The Diaries, 1941-1943" was the subject of the Shakopee Reads Book Club.

For nearly eight years, a group of women has met monthly in the library of the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Shakopee, our state's only prison for women, to discuss a book. The club was born from a desire for normalcy in a place that isn't normal, a place that for obvious reasons can't be. A book club, however, could hardly be more banal.

Etty's diary forced us to look at the most intimate and uncomfortable moments of her life. She withheld very little, yet there was no plot. There were only Etty's ruminations on her daily life, with the German occupation in the background. How could she write (and write) about her inner turmoil and her search for peace when there was a war going on? Was she that self-absorbed?

Then, from different voices in the room, the same refrain kept repeating itself: "But it's her diary." To hear Etty's story, we had to read with compassion and imagination. It is her diary. Her true story.

College of St. Scholastica InStory Banner 5-13

Through that lens, we saw change and growth, not a plot per se, but an evolution in Etty's entries. And we saw a new understanding of personal freedom and choice. We saw parallels into our own stories as women trying to make sense of the world around us and our place in it - the place we choose in the circumstances we are in.

A book club, as it turns out, could hardly be more revolutionary. "Here goes, then," Etty begins. Here goes then, indeed.

Andrea Smith is the librarian at the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Shakopee, as well as the managing editor for Shakopee's prison newsletter, The Reflector.

Andrea Smith recommends these novels for finding universal truth in stories by women authors.
The All of It by Jeannette Haien
Wonder by R.J. Palacio
Missing May by Cynthia Rylant
The Temple of My Familiar by Alice Walker
Among Others by Jo Walton

What's on your bookshelf?
Send us 450 words about your booklife, plus your list of five related books by women authors. editor@womenspress.com

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