BOOKWORM: A captivating look at doing hard time

“Orange is the New Black” by Piper Kerman, c. 2010, Spiegel & Grau, $25, 299 pages.

You broke the law today. And you’ll probably get away with it.

You were running late this morning, so you went a little over the speed limit (oops), then ran through a yellow-almost-red light (oops). The second you opened the car door at work, the wind snatched a crumpled napkin from the console and you let it go (oops). You dashed across the street (oops), then remembered your lunch. Oh, well, you’ll just write a check. You get paid tomorrow (oops).

Studies show that we break little laws every day, often without noticing. In the new book “Orange is the New Black,” author Piper Kerman tried to ignore a five-year-old crime. But that little “oops” never went away.

Twenty-four-year-old Kerman was restless. A “well-educated young lady from Boston with a thirst for bohemian counterculture and no clear plan,” she started hanging out with an older woman who had scads of money and didn’t mind spending it. Kerman fell for the woman, who recruited her into the “business” of delivering drugs.

For a while, travel and money were great perks but a few near-misses with the law made Kerman reconsider. Horrified at herself and the possibilities, she fled the relationship and the lifestyle, put everything behind her and settled down. She met a man, fell in love and started a new life.

And on a warm spring day five years later, the doorbell rang.

Arrested on conspiracy charges, it would be nearly six more years before Kerman was sentenced (because of a quirk in extradition). More than 10 years after her last illegal delivery, she reported to the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Conn. The “well-educated young lady” was about to get an education she never wanted.

During her 14-month sentence, Kerman became a good prisoner. Despite advice to the contrary, she made friends and became a trusted adviser to cellmates with little-to-no education. She listened and learned from women who had been imprisoned for much of their adult lives. Through jailhouse tricks and tips, Kerman kept herself fed, healthy, and – with the help of friends and family – she kept herself sane.

Safe in the knowledge that you’re a law-abiding citizen, it’s tempting to watch reality crime shows and imagine a “what-if” situation for yourself. Would you be handcuffed? What would happen if you were arrested?

My advice is to imagine no more. Read this book.

“Orange is the New Black” is not a scared-straight kind of book – although it’s plenty frightening. You won’t find violence here, or dark, screaming prison tales. Instead, Kerman writes about getting by in circumstances uncontrollable and unavoidable; taking responsibility for mistakes; and understanding and accepting people you never wanted to think about before. I loved this fascinating, surprisingly compassionate book so much that I carried it around with me until I finished it. I think you’ll like it that much, too.

If you’re up for a memoir that’s tough to read but satisfying, lock in on this one. For you, missing “Orange is the New Black” should be illegal.

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