I read Monster as part of a week in my YA class focusing on “The Grim and The Bleak.” (Other suggested titles included Laure Halse Anderson’s Speak and Robert Cormier’s Tenderness.) This is my first Walter Dean Myers novel and knowing that his books are beloved by some of my particularly YA-Savvy friends, I was really looking forward to it. Plus, it received boat-loads of high praise from all sorts of trusted sources. So yes, I had high expectations.
Luckily, these expectations did not fall short. Myers created a dynamic and empathetic story here, but one which really resists a straightforward interpretation or overall moral. The story is written like a screenplay (the main character was taking a film class in high school) and therefore reads at a really quick pace. (Moreover, it occurred to me while reading the book that this sort of format would surely appeal to teens who are not only well-versed in film cues and language, and may also relate better to a more media-based format than they might to a traditional narrative. I bet that one could integrate some really interesting film-based exercises into a lesson plan with this book as the focal point.)
Anyway, in the book, 16 year-old Steve Harmon is being charged with felony murder–possible sentence of life imprisonment–for his role in the fatal shooting of a convenience store owner in his neighborhood. Now, Steve didn’t actually shoot the man, but he did act as a lookout, letting the guys holding up the convenience store know that the coast was clear and no cops were around. The fact that Steve is being charged with murder and may face a life in prison, automatically reads as frighteningly harsh, but that doesn’t really mean, as Steve contends, that he’s “innocent.” There’s a great piece of dialog to this effect between Steve and his lawyer. Steve tells her that he’s innocent, and she replies: “You should have said you didn’t do it.”
This is what it really comes down to–Steve didn’t kill the man, but his actions allowed that murder to take place. He begins to recognize this over the course of his trial–and tries to make sense of it afterward, to little effect. And the cause-and-effect/moral ambiguity is no more simple for the reader. For instance, a witness is put on the stand who testifies that she was in the convenience store when the guys robbing it began to get rough. She says that she sees this, gets scared, and leaves, but doesn’t say anything about calling the police. Isn’t she as much to blame as Steve for the man’s death? She saw more of how the situation was escalating than he did. There’s the other neighborhood kid whose job it was to obstruct police officers, should anyone try and stop the robbers once they’d left the store. He’s not on trial like Steve because he made a deal with the prosecution. The murder may only be the ‘fault’ of the man who actually shot him, but the complicity of many other people–besides Steve–allowed it to occur.