This summer I edited a unique and fascinating book, Thunder in the Cell by John Ballentine. John has been a prisoner for almost thirty years in the Virginia Correctional System because of drugs. During that time, a provocative dream about his mother prompted him to search for God. He began with the World Almanac and advanced to reading the Church Fathers and writings of the saints. Early on, a Catholic prisoner had invited him to Mass. After stalling for two months, John went and there was converted. Since then he has passionately promoted the Catholic faith. His memoir is anything but dull as he recounts his experiences with wit and humor. His description of prison life reminds me of the popular show “Orange Is the New Black.”
An interesting feature of the book is that John often likens himself to biblical characters. For example, he comments that the Israelites were forty years in the Desert of Sin, while it took him forty-three years to learn his lesson. He is very familiar with Scripture especially because of his five weeks in the hole, prison lockup, where he did nothing but read the Bible. His description of lockup: “The hole is unbearably hot in the summer and freezing in the winter. Fans are not allowed because . . . one convict used the shaft of a fan to stab somebody. . . . One lies on a plastic mattress and literally stews in one’s own juices. . . . You have your own personal shroud of Turin! Your body outline is imprinted on the sheet that you pull off the mattress to get your newly washed sheet.”
After his conversion, John began leading a Bible study in prison, formed a group rosary, and saw to it that Catholic books were made available. Realizing that he needed more knowledge about the faith in order to present it to others, he enrolled in the Catholic Distance University and earned a Masters of Arts in theology. Most impressive is that he has fathered five godchildren in prison. Several of his conversations about faith with his fellow prisoners appear in the book. His first convert was his cellmate Brad. The friendship between the two men provide much of the book’s humor.
Arguably the most moving sections of this memoir are John’s letter to his daughter on her wedding day and his lament addressed to the two aborted children he had with his college girlfriend.
Included in the book are a few scenarios from John’s childhood. One in particular gives you a taste of his entertaining writing style. For more than one reason, John was truant. He relates the result:
“All that changed abruptly when my 7’11” Uncle Junior (he claims he is 6’6″) happened to come by and see me. Evidently he was not only supersized but had X-ray vision. I heard a low thundering sound and thought at first it was an earthquake. Then I realized it was my Uncle Junior. . . . The chase was on!
“The giant chased the runt, who ran for his life into the house where Mom and Nana were drinking coffee at the kitchen table. I flew past them, a boy banshee screaming at the top of his lungs as if the bowels of hell had opened up to swallow him.”
John locked himself in his bedroom, but Nana gave permission for Uncle Junior to remove the door. John continues the story:
“Oh, what a sight as he stooped to enter a doorway built for human use… He scooped up the cornered rat like a bag o’ rags and tucked it under his arm. . . . As I walked into school, . . . I thought I heard him call after me, ‘If I catch you again, I’ll eat you.’ I couldn’t be sure though, for the bell was ringing.”
Now and then, a spiritual nugget enhances the text, such as this one:
“It is humbling. Just yesterday I was contemplating the birds and the sky, how we are just momentary blinks of an eye on the face of the earth. …All this around us continues with or without us. We just get to participate for a while.”
Thunder in the Cell is available on Amazon for $12.00. I think you would like it.
What good book have you read recently and recommend?