In God of the Rodeo, Daniel Bergner describes an increasingly contentious relationship between himself and Burl Cain, Warden of Angola Prison in Louisiana. Bergner, a freelance journalist, was attracted to Angola in 1996 by the prison's rodeo, an annual competition with a 32-year history that takes place over the four Sundays in October. Preparing to write about the rodeo required several months' research during which the warden at first allowed Bergner wide access to the prison, only to limit him as time progressed. This led to a series of conflicts, which Bergner eventually went to court to resolve.
The rodeo and the conflict form the lens through which the author focuses on both the warden and several inmates. In this examination, readers will learn something about the operation of old-style prison farms. They will also discover a more complicated persona in the warden than immediately meets the eye. You see Warden Cain charm a group of faculty and students at the University of Massachusetts as he describes holding the hand of an inmate being executed by lethal injection and adding religious and educational programs to help inmates. The book, however, presents another picture of Cain back in Angola as he requires rodeo riders to wear the wide-stripped uniforms abandoned years ago as inmate uniform and as he demands a payoff from the author for continued access to the prison to complete the book. Bergner also portrays the complexity of some inmates whose behavior is difficult to comprehend. Johnny, Littell, Danny, Buckkey, Myron, and others emerge as individuals searching for meaning, hope, and even redemption in a setting where the larger community offers them few resources and a punitive environment in which to live.
God of the Rodeo is not for the faint-hearted. At the same time it illustrates that good as well as evil exists on both sides of the prison fence.
Amos Wilson is a chaplain in the Tennessee Department of Corrections.