– Opening sentence
In September 2015, after almost a year of saving money (I’m not all that good at saving money), I flew to San Francisco and spent two weeks travelling to LA with a bunch of strangers.
It was awesome. I saw some amazing sights, met some amazing people, and had some amazing experiences.
Whilst in San Francisco, I visited the famous Alcatraz Island, home of the now-decaying Alcatraz prison that once held some of the biggest names in American crime history (Al Capone and Whitey Bulger to name a few). I walked through the cell-block, sat on the concrete bleachers in the recreation ground and attempted to imagine what it must have like to live for days on end in the dreaded “hole”.
It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like for those who lived their sentences in Alcatraz, but I remember thinking how cruel it was to be trapped in one of the most notorious prisons in American history, and being able to see freedom so tantilisingly close-by, but so agonisingly unreachable.
For those of you who haven’t been and don’t understand what I’m saying, here’s a picture I took from Alcatraz:
After spending some hours on the island and partaking in the tour, I stumbled across Alcatraz #1259 in the bookshop. Written by William G. Baker (or Bill Baker, as he prefers to be known), I knew this autobiography would give me the insight I couldn’t comprehend as a visitor, so I picked it up.
I also got to meet the author himself, Bill Baker, as it just so happened that the day I went to Alcatraz Island, the ex-prisoner was also there, sitting at a table in the middle of the bookshop, signing copies of, what he calls, his “raggedy book”.
I wish that I’d had the chance to read the book before meeting him, because instead of all the interesting questions I could have asked him, I asked him the same question I imagine every single visitor had also asked him that day;
“Is it hard coming back to the island, after all this time?”
I studied journalism for three years at university and that was the best question I could come up with at the time. Way to go.
His answer, short and matter-of-fact, was simply “No, not at all” – and with that he signed my copy of his raggedy book and that was that.
I apologise for the long introduction, but visiting the prison itself made Alcatraz #1259 a much more interesting read for me, which potentially makes me review (it’s coming I promise!) slightly more biased.
This is how we lived, what we thought and said and did, the good and the bad. This is the true story of Alcatraz.
– Bill Baker, Alcatraz #1259
I find it difficult to review an autobiography. The author may not be the most accomplished writer, and the material they have to work with are real memories and events; there is no flamboyant creative writing and mystical fantasies for the reader to dive into.
You’re reading their life story – it’s a much more intimate relationship between author and reader.
Alcatraz #1259 is the story of Bill Baker, a “very bad boy” who from a young age can’t stay out of trouble for very long. That trouble lands him in Alcatraz at the young and impressionable age of just 18, and it’s clear that the memories of that experience shaped him in a way that would never fully leave him.
True, this book doesn’t always leave you etching to turn the page, and there are a few jumps to his pre-Alcatraz period that are a bit unnecessary, but those rules don’t really apply the same way here anyway.
It’s an honest and open account of what it was really like to serve time in Alcatraz, and it’s a surprising one too.
Baker’s personal story is a sad one, with multiple spells in prison, loneliness and death, but also of friendship and adventure – it is an insightful memory of a period that no longer exists; of an era where the world, and the people in it, were different.
Bill Baker is a dying generation, yet he has allowed the memories to live on through his raggedy book – and it would be a crime (excuse the pun) to disregard it.
(4 / 5)
The End, maybe, maybe not.
– Final sentence