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.