The South Dakota Women’s Prison has a book club. It was initiated 15 years ago by Vonnie Shields, who now heads the South Dakota Humanities Council.
The club periodically selects a featured book. On the evening of Sept. 30, the author of a recently selected novel attended the book club.
The South Dakota Women’s Prison is part of the Solem Public Safety Center, a 22-year-old facility that houses the state women’s prison, the central office of the state Department of Corrections, Pierre Police Department, Hughes County Sheriff’s Office, a state highway patrol station, and agents for the state Division of Criminal Investigation. The prison is the bulk of the building’s 78,000 square footage.
Inmates can take classes for literacy, adult basic education and General Education Diploma (GED).
The newest book by Christiana Abt, Buffalo, NY, has been receiving five-star reviews from around the nation. “ ‘Beauty and Grace’ is an intensely moving work of historical fiction telling the stories of women from different worlds and different eras, brought together within the haunting confines of Midland’s Wood Haven asylum,” said Abt.
“Earlier this year I was on a book tour in Florida, and a woman bought two copies of ‘Beauty & Grace,’ one for herself and one for a friend in South Dakota,” Abt said. It turned out that friend was Vonnie Shields. After reading the book, Shields felt it would be a strong selection for the women prisoners. Shields contacted Abt for book copies, “and the next thing I knew I was filling out security clearance paperwork for state officials to allow me to enter the prison for an author presentation on Sept, 30,” said Abt.
Though used to traveling the country because of her writing, yet according to Abt, the women’s prison was indeed a unique group of readers to select her historical novel for their book club. When she was invited to join them for their discussion of her book, she accepted.
The book’s first main character, Teagan, leads readers through her chilling, involuntary commitment to an asylum. The other main character, Grace, arrives in 1978, hired as a consultant to deinstitutionalize the 10 remaining patients trapped for decades in the asylum. She has to deal with citizens determined to prevent ‘asylum people’ from moving into their community. Together, Teagan and Grace lead the nine other patients from their dark past into new lives.
Those elements of the storyline are what encouraged Shields to choose the book for the women’s prison book club.
“When I received Beauty & Grace, I put it on my pile of books to read,” Shields said. “Later that day I picked it up and became so engrossed I couldn’t leave it alone. I quickly realized it was a book I wanted the book club members to read. The life of an inmate has similarities to Christina’s characters, in that they would rather be someplace else. However, just as in ‘Beauty & Grace,’ the human spirit is strong and supports the women in getting through each day.”
“Our book club is a way to instill within the members the hope that they will get out someday and contribute to the world in a positive way,” said Shields. She believed the book club members would love the book, and would look forward to meeting Abt.
Abt has also been invited to participate in the South Dakota Festival of Books as a presenter and exhibitor. The festival is Oct. 4-6 in Deadwood, showcasing at least 65 authors, scholars, and publishers to an anticipated 4,000 attendees.
Abt is an author, newspaper columnist and radio broadcaster. Her written work has been featured in a number of anthologies including Chicken Soup for the Soul Books. Christina is the author of four books; “Chicken Wing Wisdom,” “Crown Hill — a Novel of Love, Life and the Afterlife,” “Heart and Soul The Best Years of My Op Ed Life” and “Beauty and Grace.” For more information, visit Abt’s website, https://www.christinaabt.com/.