The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

The Valley

June 17, 2013

Captive readers warm to book club at Snyder County prison

SELINSGROVE — Most of the women in orange jumpsuits listened quietly as Raven Rudnitsky and Marsha Lemons led the book club discussion on Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s “The Language of Flowers,” but by the end of the meeting all of them eagerly accepted the next book on the list, “A Painted House,” by John Grisham.

“When do you think you’ll be back?” an inmate asked Rudnitsky and Lemons as they prepared to leave the Snyder County jail Wednesday following the hour-long meeting in the dorm-style cell.

They assured the women they’ll return in July and one day every month after that to discuss a variety of books.

The book club was started by Anne Gates who was inspired by World Book Night USA, a nonprofit organization that provides free books to volunteers who turn them over to non-readers or people who don’t have access to books in their communities.

As she mulled who to give the 20 books she received from the organization, Gates recalled that Keri Albright, the CEO and president of the Greater Susquehanna United Way, started a book club three years ago in Northumberland County Prison which continues to flourish today.

Recruiting Rudnitsky, Lemons, Janie Coyne and Ricki Stringfellow, Gates approached Snyder County Warden Ruth Rush two months ago with the idea of offering women inmates a chance to take part in the book club.

“The warden was just very welcoming and excited about the idea that someone would come in and offer something,” Gates said.

Rush s encourages the community to get involved and was especially receptive to the idea of a book club that teaches life lessons inmates can relate to.

She reviews all the book titles — no “Fifty Shades of Grey” allowed — and even read the club’s first book, “The Language of Flowers,” so she could discuss it with the women held at the jail.

All but one of the 14 inmates at the jail Wednesday participated in the book club discussion Wednesday that touched on a variety of themes in Diffenbaugh’s novel of redemption, ranging from forgiveness, family and second chances.

“They’re really getting into this,” Rush said as a few inmates warmed to the topic and spoke about how the book affected them.

“I was emotional at the end. I had tears running down my face,” said Christina Bush, who plans to share the book with her teenage daughter.

Looking ahead to when she’s released from jail, Bush wondered how she could continue sharing her love of books with others in her community.

“We can find you a book club,” Rudnitsky said. “Or you can start one yourself.”

Her eyes lighting up at the prospect, Bush smiled and said, “It’s something I can look forward to and something I can do with my daughter.”

That exchange is what the book club volunteers had hoped for.

Gates had never been inside the county jail before she pitched the program and was dismayed to find some inmates languishing.

“One of the inmates told us she had been in jail for seven months and all she did was lay on her bed. She said (the book club) reminded her of her love of reading,” Gates said. “Even if we don’t get beyond that point, it’s been a success.”

Next month, the book club will be reading Susquehanna University professor Tom Bailey’s novel, “The Grace That Keeps This World.” Gates said Bailey will join the women in August when they discuss the book which is scheduled to be made into a movie starring Glenn Close and James Franco.

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