Virginia Reeves delivers a “scared straight” message in her Man Booker long listed tale of a man sent to prison in Alabama in the 1920s – Work Like Any Other. With vivid realistic descriptions of Roscoe T. Martin’s harrowing prison life and the toll he pays for rewiring electricity into his farmhouse, Reeves spares no mercy on the reader.
Martin, an electrician by trade, who enjoys reading about Faraday’s principles of electromagnetic conduction, resentfully leaves his job to live on his wife’s farm when his father-in-law dies. His solution to the farm’s decline is to siphon electricity from the mainline onto the farm, and his initial efforts are successful until a company man dies from checking a live line on his property. Suddenly, he is in prison serving ten to twenty years, and his accomplice, Wilson, the Black farmhand who has worked the land for years, is consigned to working the mines.
Reeves cleverly maintains the suspense by alternating chapters from Roscoe’s prison experience to life on the farm. His wife, Marie, bereft from not being able to have more children after her difficult delivery of their son Gerald, blames Roscoe for everything and refuses any communication with him. She is not present at the trial; she does not answer his letters; she refuses to allow their son to visit him in prison. Her cold anger seeps through the narrative when Roscoe imagines her damning him to death in prison. Later, her vengeful attitude threatens to destroy Roscoe’s future.
Reeves uses electricity as the conductor of Roscoe’s dreams of a better life. He is forced to reinvent himself in prison as he works in the dairy, in the prison library, and finally with the dogs chasing down escapees, yet he defines himself as an electrician, even offering to wire the new electric chair built for executions- an offer the parole board does not appreciate. He suffers beatings, near death stabbings, cruel torture, yet he connects with a few other inmates and Taylor, the guard who recruits him to work with dogs. Amazingly, he survives.
But Reeves has more to say, and she continues in her Part Two to examine life after prison. Roscoe faces an uncertain future with the years he has lost and the toll on his body, yet he longs to see his wife and his son. Reeves offers a realistic and redemptive ending but not until she scares the reader one more time with possibilities.
Work Like Any Other is a powerful story full of caution, revenge, and forgiveness, and with a glimpse into a time when electricity began to change everything.