Book Review : Big House Blues: Jail for Women


Sing Soft, Sing Loud: Scenes From Two Lives by Patricia McConnel (Atheneum: $18.95; 246 pages)

Easy to say: This is an extraordinary book, and let it go at that. The wrong thing to say: This is a heartbreaking book, and let it go at that. And probably too dumb to suggest: Everybody should read this book, because the last thing anybody wants to do is what he or she “should” do. Nonetheless, “Sing Soft, Sing Loud” is extraordinary, heartbreaking, and yes, everybody should read it.

Patricia McConnel, according to the author’s blurb, “has spent varying amounts of time in jails in El Paso, San Diego, El Centro, Los Angeles, Tijuana and St. Louis. She is an alumna of the Federal Reformatory for Women in Alderson, W. Va.” So this is a book about jail, and the women who live there, and how they got there, and how time passes for them, and how they survive.


The book is divided into three parts: six short stories centering on a girl named Iva, a perky hooker who keeps getting picked up, and picked up, and fails utterly the one time she tries to break out of the life and get a regular (?) job; nine stories on Toni, a girl far more introspective and maybe more intelligent than Iva, but a girl who has been spewed out of a broken home where her mother doesn’t like her, and her father--safe and sound with a second wife and a new set of kids--makes occasional, condescending moves to “rescue” his errant daughter by a previous marriage.

Reasons, Not Excuses

(Of course, let it be said, if every child disliked by its mother and ignored by its father ended up behind bars, whole cities might find themselves enclosed, and free men and women might live in isolated clusters out near Victorville or Barstow.)

That is to say, Toni’s lack of love and lack of education are not used here as excuses, but only as partial reasons for her emotional paralysis, her lack of self-esteem, even her penchant for getting into trouble--as in, why does Toni have a cold? She might have been sitting in a draft, but we can’t blame it on the draft for sure.

After the short stories, the author offers an impassioned “Afterword” in which she states that “About 95% of the events described in this book actually occurred.” (Since the tales here range from grizzly to harrowing and back again, this is sad news indeed.) In one story, Iva hears the screams of a naked woman in isolation as lye water is splashed all over her: In another, Toni, flirting with the idea of going back to work for her drug-smuggling boyfriend in Tijuana, is submitted to a joyless, workaday gang rape, some of the saddest pages I’ve ever read anywhere. But the author, in this Afterword, recalls writing her first story, showing it to her husband, who then remarked, “I don’t believe that happened,” and then, “I don’t know why anyone would want to read something like that.”

‘We Are Responsible’

The author also lashes out at what she considers to be the feckless view that criminal men are responsible for their women ending up behind bars. She then writes these lines that resonate--which have to do with all women in this society and most of the men too, when you think about it: “On the one hand I am saying we need to acknowledge that we are responsible for our actions; on the other I am saying we usually have no options. It sounds like I am saying that we both are and aren’t responsible at the same time. That’s right, that’s what I’m saying, and it can and does drive people nuts.”

How do you cope with life in prison--an existence that is crazy, irrational, impossible and implausible through and through? By small kindnesses, by exchanging cigarettes, by singing, by giggling, by plotting, by scrubbing.


In fact, guess what? It’s the way many women get through their days outside, and their men, beleaguered by their own problems, don’t . . . “know why anyone would want to read something like that.” If nothing else, “Sing Soft, Sing Loud” reminds us that we are all in some prison of our own making. But--for a writer--there is some good news. You can write your way through the bars, through space, through time.