by David Moloney
On April 12, 1993, in a Dartmouth High School classroom, Karter Reed stabbed Jason Robinson in the stomach, an act that would take a brother, a son and athlete from his family, and also send a sixteen-year-old Karter Reed to an adult prison for twenty years.
In Jean Troustine’s most recent book, Boy With a Knife, she recounts her over one hundred letters and subsequent relationship with Karter Reed. The relationship between Trounstine and Karter is a perfect match, though Karter was the one to reach out to Trounstine. Trounstine has been involved in women’s prisons for over twenty years and teaches Voices Behind Bars: The Literature of Prison, to students at Middlesex Community College in Lowell, MA.
Although at the heart of this book is Karter’s fight for justice, there is also a great deal interwoven throughout Karter’s story about how this country deals with juvenile offenders, particularly violent ones. Trounstine writes, “On average, approximately 250,000 youths are currently processed in adult courts each year.” The history of incarcerating juveniles as adults is well detailed and explored by Trounstine, most effective when the hard facts, history and academic studies are braided within Karter’s own juvenile–then adult–journey through the process of trial, incarceration, rehabilitation, and the parole board. But Karter’s story itself can get buried beneath the studies and history at times. For instance, when Karter is awaiting his parole board hearing, I wanted to know the outcome rather than the history behind the parole board.
A good deal of criticism on this book has been its one-sided portrayal of Karter’s fight for justice without any attention paid to the victim’s story. While this is valid, the perspective Trounstine takes is not warped, or without empathy. The book has less to do with the act itself than the institutional flaws of juvenile incarceration in this country. And Trounstine clearly stands on one side of the argument on whether juveniles should be incarcerated as adults. If you’re looking for opposing arguments on the subject, you won’t find it here. She writes in the Introduction, “Karter’s story itself makes the argument why we must stop incarcerating juveniles in adult prisons. Kids are hardly incapable of change.” Trounstine uses facts, as well as other state’s models, such as the Missouri Model, “which stresses therapy instead of punishment,” to sustain her argument.
At a recent reading for the book at River Run Bookstore in Portsmouth, NH, protestors sent posters to the store denouncing the glorification of Karter in Boy With a Knife. The idea Trounstine glorifies Karter is misplaced. Karter just happens to be a juvenile sentenced as an adult, who became rehabilitated, and who contacted Trounstine at an opportune time. The relationship sparked a book necessary for an ethical conversation that needs to happen, regardless of which side you position yourself on.
David Moloney is a graduate of The Mountainview Low-Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction. He currently teaches writing at UMASS Lowell and Southern New Hampshire University.