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SHERIDAN — Internationally recognized death penalty opponent Sister Helen Prejean will give a presentation in the Inner Circle of the Sheridan County Fulmer Public Library at 5:30 p.m. Oct. 1 to kick off Sheridan’s Big Read program.
Big Read events are sponsored throughout the country by the National Endowment for the Arts and encourage members of a community to read the same book at the same time and then come together to discuss it.
“This is the first time we have received the grant, but not the first time we have applied,” said Kevin Knapp, programming coordinator for SCFL, noting that it is unusual for a city of Sheridan’s size to receive the award.
“I really take to heart and agree with the mission of the Big Read which is to restore reading to the center of American social life,” he continued. “For a lot of people who read these days, it is a solitary activity. But what is better than reading a good book and then getting together with someone to talk about it?”
The SCFL received the $7,500 grant from the NEA to host this year’s event with the book, “A Lesson Before Dying” by Ernest J. Gaines. The fictional book focuses on a schoolteacher in 1940s Louisiana who works with an innocent man condemned to death. According to the NEA website, the book “addresses the biggest theme possible — how one affirms life in the face of death.”
The book, along with reading guides and audio guides, is available free of charge at the SCFL, the YMCA, the Sheridan Senior Center, Sheridan High School, Sheridan Stationery Books and Gallery and all branch libraries in the county.
“It sounds heavy, but it was actually written for a young audience,” Knapp said about the book. “That doesn’t make it light, but it is a quick read. It is not heavily philosophical or anything like that. It is an easy read.”
With just one person on death row in Wyoming and only one person executed in the state since the 1960s, Knapp said that Wyoming residents are not confronted with executions as regularly as residents of other states.
“In a way, it might not always be on our radar, but when it is, we might be able to engage more on a case by case basis,” he said. “It does engage our conscience more. Wyoming has the opportunity to truly deliberate capital punishment.”
The library will host several book discussions, led by local resident Norleen Healy, throughout the county during the month of October. Additionally, there will be film screenings of both “A Lesson Before Dying” and “Dead Man Walking” at the SCFL.
Also, 50 copies of Prejean’s book “Dead Man Walking” are available on a first come, first served basis. “Dead Man Walking” is being reissued in honor of the 20-year anniversary of its publication. The book tells the story of Prejean’s relationship with a death row inmate she counseled in the months leading up to his execution.
The book was made into an Academy Award-winning movie starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. Since that time, Prejean has become a well-known advocate for abolishment of the death penalty and has continued to counsel and be present at the execution of several death row inmates.
She also works extensively with families of murder victims.
This is not Prejean’s first visit to Sheridan. She said she has hosted two prior events, including a creative non-fiction writing class and she also regularly stays at the San Benito Monastery in Dayton during summer months to work on her writing.
“I have a special love for the Sheridan library,” she said. “Libraries all through history have been places where people come to learn. It is such a source of enlightenment, and learning, links and connections to people of all kinds and different worlds that build these bonds of connection.”
Prejean said anyone is welcome to attend, regardless of their opinion for or against the death penalty. She said she recognizes that discussion of the death penalty evokes strong and often complicated emotions in many people.
“I know it is a heavy topic but I try to take people over to both sides of the issues because I’ve been on both sides,” Prejean said. “It is quite a thing morally to navigate because we feel a lot ambivalence. I don’t take any of the emotions lightly and they each deserve fair treatment.”
“It’s going to be an interchange,” she continued, about the presentation she will give. “My job is to wake up the country about the death penalty and I do it through storytelling.
I’ll present how the book happened, how the movie happened, but then I’ll take them through the core experience of the journey. It is isn’t just me giving a presentation to them but us exploring together and letting whatever arises, arise,” she said. “It is very spontaneous. The people are live contributors to what is going to happen. No encounters are ever the same; I don’t have a set speech I take. I put the boat on the current and we take a ride together.”
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