Martin Stokes is a 17-year-old black high school student. Arrested on his own front stoop for “steering” an undercover cop to a drug dealer, he’s spent five months in jail at Rikers Island when this story begins. By turns bleak and funny, Rikers High follows Martin’s struggles with his overworked legal-aid attorney, the bullying of his fellow inmates, a complicated home life and his own burgeoning anger at the unfairness of his incarceration. The novel spans just two and a half weeks, but those few days feel as long as a lifetime.
Rikers High opens with Martin being cut in the face with a razor, and the story builds tension around whether or not he will seek revenge for the attack and jeopardize his chance for release. Author Paul Volponi taught adolescents at Rikers Island for six years, and he notes in a foreword that while the characters are fictitious, most of what transpires in the novel really happened at some point on his watch. That includes corrections officers beating up inmates and fighting with the teachers, kids beating up on each other and even one death, as well as seemingly endless hours of mind-numbing boredom. Volponi balances the excitement of the story’s various conflicts with a real sense of how long the days feel when you have nowhere to go and nothing to do—when fighting for the fun of it begins to seem like legitimate entertainment.
Martin is a smart kid with a good sense of humor (“I’d been sitting five feet from [the teacher] for a week, with a big cut on my face. But he still had no idea I was his student. He should have been a detective instead of a teacher. Then maybe the jail would be empty and some high school . . . would be full of kids.”), and readers will root for him to do the right thing. They’ll also have much to discuss with this engrossing and thought-provoking read.
Heather Seggel is a freelance writer in Ukiah, California.