Breakfast at Bronzefield by Sophie Campbell

Breakfast at Bronzefield by Sophie Campbell is a brand-new, professional self-published novel. I received a beautiful physical copy from the author. I found the physical quality durable and the cover effective, foregoing any cartoony clip art-looking images and instead using a simple lavender background and raised gold lettering. Campbell is a black woman from the United Kingdom who was sentenced to prison after she was “found guilty of GBH and one count of assault against police,” which Google tells me means “grievous bodily harm.” Given no choice, she’s forced to sign a non-disclosure agreement and spends what seems like most of her time in segregation.

At the beginning of the book is a note about some details being changed to protect everyone’s privacy, including the author’s. I’m always wary of such notes because the text can become clunky with phrases such as “and another person, whom I’ll call her Sarah.” While reading, I forgot that Campbell was stealthily protecting the people in the pages, a principled choice given the nature of the topic. The writing flowed naturally and was not disruptive.

If you’ve been to Grab the Lapels before, you know I taught rhetoric for eleven years to college freshmen on traditional campuses, at community colleges, and in a correctional facility. Breakfast at Bronzefield reads as a mix of autobiography and journalism, so I was alert to how the author used her source material, and if she did so ethically. The parts about Campbell and her aren’t given noticeable creative license or made poetic, which I call autobiography (more factual than flowery), and the source material is clearly cited with end notes that lead directly to the original source and she includes a bibliography. It’s a Christmas miracle, ya’ll! I was so delighted to find a book that can balance the personal and the factual without taking advantage of the source material to prove a point that only tenuously connects (something The Undocumented Americans author does to the book’s detriment).

Sources are there to back up what Campbell experienced before, during, and after incarceration, and never to elicit pity. Several prison memoirs I’ve read — Orange is the New Black, Writing My Wrongs, and The Love Prison Made and Unmade — seem published largely to manipulate readers into feeling badly for all incarcerated people, implying the inmate is a constant victim and dancing around suggestions that the author could be complicit in their poor choices while incarcerated. Campbell, without excess pathos, states her activities while in prison:

Quite calmly I said, ‘If you want me to leave, you’d best drag me out, because I’m not moving,’ and I grounded myself firmly into my seat. I was fuming and determined to make things as difficult for them as possible.

Backup was called for, and in total four officers were needed to drag me out. I kicked, held onto doors, tore off one officer’s bracelet and kicked some more, so it turned into one long, drawn-out exit.

Sophie Campbell was what corrections would call a problem prisoner. She throws water on people, tosses her TV outside her cell, grabs another inmate by her hair and slaps the woman. But behind every choice is a reason she gives that gets you inside the mind of Campbell while she was prison. She’s not asking for you to sympathize, she’s telling you what happened — eliciting empathy — and I appreciated that honesty. Breakfast at Bronzefield had more heart and weight as a result. As Campbell notes, in prison, neither other inmates nor corrections give those incarcerated any incentive for good behavior, and tend to pay more attention to those who make choices they wouldn’t on the outside.

When you’re bored, you’ll do anything and perhaps this willingness to engage in risky behaviour — like the prisoners who chose to trade sexual favours in exchange for tobacco or even fizzy drinks — was the result of being in an environment where you learnt to have no regard for the consequences.

Even after she is released, Campbell shares the struggles women face with homelessness, unemployment and job discrimination, and being able to access a parole officer who is within a reasonable distance and wants to help. She combines the story of living with her father, whom she fears for multiple reasons, and statistics on the larger formerly incarcerated female population. In the end, Sophie Campbell leaves some recommendations for how to better rehabilitate and safety release incarcerated women. Her suggestions do not seem to come out of anger about her time in prison, but logical steps that a government could enact if it wanted to.

Breakfast at Bronzefield is an excellent read constructed of blended genres by a highly competent and honest writer. I want to thank Sophie Campbell for reaching out to me and sending me a review copy. All opinions here are my own.

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31 comments

  1. Ooh, this sounds really good! I love that the author doesn’t seem to be aiming for emotional manipulation of the reader, and that she presents things “as they happened” instead of trying to convince anyone she’s a perfect person. Women (and everyone) should always be allowed to present themselves simply as human, with all of their various assets and flaws. I also like that she addresses some of the struggles of life after prison, and offers suggestions for improving the system. What’s not to like?? I think I’ll be adding this one to my TBR. Great review!

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  2. This sounds excellent! I really like that the author focuses on facts (she even includes a bibliography?!!), and telling a story based on her lived experiences rather than taking excessive creative licenses.

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    • YES. Both are self-published, which I think is a testament to a determined writer who wants to present her work the best she can, vs. Tobola, whose book seemed more like her personal diary and needed someone else’s eyes before she released it into the wild, if at all.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Sounds like a great book! And how wonderful that she offers concrete steps on how things can be improved for women once they come out of prison-it always feels like this is such a missed opportunity for us a society, we seem to just forget about former prisoners and hang them out to dry-no wonder so many return to jail! It’s cheaper for us to figure out ways to reintegrate them back to society properly than keep sending them to jail…

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    • To have a re-entry center for incarcerated people costs money, so they aren’t common. Typically, such places will have incarcerated people on the very last part of their sentence working out in the community. We had a group of guys who would come to the civic theatre where I worked and help build sets. However, if someone is released and they are not on parole (because they did the entire sentence and were not released early), they are just let out of prison. There are no next steps. One Reddit user writes:

      “August 31, 2010:

      Just a few minutes before being released from prison, I was given a $50 check and a voucher for a bus ride to anywhere in Texas. The rest was up to me.”

      Liked by 1 person

    • You’re welcome. I was glad that the author reached out to me, as I felt like it was a good connection. I taught college courses in a correctional facility in the U.S. for one year, but even before that I was interested in prison reform and prisoners’ rights, during and after release.

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  4. This sounds fantastic. I love how particular you are about how the author uses the source material, if sources are cited, and if they are used ethically – I might be particular about those with papers, but I never really thought to turn that eye on nonfiction works. In any case, I’m glad this one passed your standards! I also like how Campbell tells her story without ‘excess pathos’. Definitely adding this to my TBR. I saw you also made a feature with the author, so I’ll also be checking that post out!

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    • When I was teaching rhetoric, we often talked about how students knew to be skeptical of articles on the internet, but they assumed anything published and in a library was already vetted. It’s not! So when I read nonfiction that includes factual statements, I want to know those factual statements are opinions stated like facts to try and sway me.

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      • Ha, in high school and early college we all thought that as long as the source wasn’t Wikipedia or the internet, it was fine. I guess I still have some of that ingrained in me – I tend to be more unquestioning of nonfiction books. Not too late to unlearn it, though!

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        • True! And the books I showed the students that were self-published were in the college library. With a library, basically any book a faculty member or student requests can end up there (though that’s just one example, of course).

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  5. This sounds really interesting (and much better than the last book about prison). I like the distinction you make here between books designed to elicit sympathy and those that prompt empathy, wherein the latter actually presents real people (and their real choices) in such a way that we can understand them without having to justify them.

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    • I thought about you as I was reading this memoir and wondering what you would think, as you are one of the few British book bloggers I follow. I wondered if people in England have strong opinions about prison reform there, like they do in the U.S. We’re constantly changing laws around prison.

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      • I think this is one area where I am in a proper bubble – everyone I’ve ever talked about this with wants fewer custodial sentences and more focus on rehabilitation – but I don’t think that’s representative of the wider population. Every now and then, there is a Shock Story in the tabloids about a gang leader or similar who has a games console in his cell, and there’s lots of handwringing by columnists about how “soft” prison is “these days”.

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  6. A biography! Praise be! I love it when fiction, even if something is just lightly fiction, includes a biography. It shows me that the author not only did their research, but they respect what the research has done for them and their books.

    Heh. If I had read this review before your interview with Campbell, I probably would have asked different questions… I find that when authors include a disclaimer like that at the beginning of their book, they are less likely to include those annoying phrases like, “whom I shall call Sarah for this text…” blah blah blah. That said, I haven’t read much fictionalized autobiography lately. I should find some more! It’s a great genre.

    How did you find this book and connect with Campbell in the first place?

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