Since publishing Beauty & Grace, I have shared my writer’s story with book clubs from Pennsylvania to Oregon, New York to Florida and states in between.
It’s been a meaningful journey, with moments from each gathering forever etched in my storyteller’s soul.
Here in South Dakota, my primary focus is the Festival of Books, which takes place later this week in Deadwood.
However, there has also been a book club on my schedule—-a group of 12 women I met last night for a Beauty & Grace discussion unlike any I have, or ever will, experience.
The club was started by a woman named, Vonnie Shields. This energetic lady holds a number of life titles including wife, mother, teacher, volunteer and community leader. She also is a book lover of the most extraodinary kind with a deep desire to share her literary passion.
That’s one of the reasons Vonnie was appointed Director of the South Dakota Humanities Council. It’s also why, fifteen years ago, she decided to start a book club at the South Dakota Women’s Prison.
When Vonnie emailed me that Beauty & Grace was the September women’s prison book club selection, she explained that the struggles of my book’s characters, locked away in an asylum, offered parallels to the lives of the women in the prison. She also felt Beauty & Grace’s redemptive storyline would resonate with the book club members and provide hope about their own lives and their futures.
From that email, I became dedicated and determined to take part in the club’s September book club discussion.
Five months of correspondence, pages of background checks and approval forms and a lot of finger crossing later, the wonderful warden, Wanda Markland, (pictured here) gave her approval for my attendance. Vonnie and I made a date—-September 30th, 6:30pm at the South Dakota Women’s Prison in Pierre.
What I never imagined was the excitement my presence at the book club would generate. From Warden Markland to the book club members, they made me feel like a rock star as I entered the impenetratable double door system and went behind the walls.
But, to be honest, I wasn’t sure of this Beauty & Grace presentation. What would these women want or need from me in talking about my book? What could I offer that would matter?
As it turned out, the women only wanted and needed to talk about the ways in which the book allowed them to escape within its pages. They talked openly about the similarities between the challenges faced by my characters and their own situations. They expanded the discussion to friendships they have developed in prison and the importance of the support they provide each other. As they spoke it was clear that Vonnie’s love of books had connected these women in ways that were essential to their well being and their dreams for the future.
An amazing two-and-half hours later, the women and I had extended our discussion beyond the club’s alloted time. Concluding the meeting, Vonnie announced the next book the women would be reading, I felt a pang of sadness, knowing these special readers would be moving on from Beauty & Grace to another author’s characters and storylines.
As the women gathered where Vonnie and I were seated to receive their October books, I heard a voice say the women had something for me. Turning toward the group, one of the women stepped forward and bowed as she presented me with a beautifully printed thank you card.
Giggling like school girls we savored the moment as my presenter explained each one of them had written to me in this card. They wanted me to know just how important it was that I took the time to come and share the Beauty & Grace journey with them.
Doing my best not to cry, I promised that I would read each note and savor the card as a special reminder of the time we shared.
As Vonnie continued to try and move us out the door, one of the women spoke the words we were all thinking “I don’t want this to be over..” To which I immediately added, “Yeah, it feels like we should get in our jammies and have a sleep over.”
But it was as close to a “not-allowed-in-prison” hug as we could all share.