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Brother One Cell: An American Coming of Age in South Korea's Prisonsby Cullen Thomas
Synopses & Reviews
A gripping first-person account of one young Americans life-changing years in a South Korean prison.
At age twenty-three Cullen Thomas was, like most middle-class kids his age, looking for something meaningful and exciting to do before settling into the 9-to-5 routine. Possessed of a youthful, romantic view of the world, he set off for adventure in Asia and a job teaching English in Seoul, South Korea. But he got more than he ever bargained for when an ill-advised stunt led to a drugsmuggling arrest and a three-and-a-half-year prison sentence. Brother One Cell is Cullens memoir of that timethe harrowing and unusual story of a good kid forced to grow up in very unusual circumstances.
One of only a handful of foreign inmates, Cullen shared a cell block with human-traffickers, jewel smugglers, murderers, and thieves. Fortunately for him, the strict Confucian social mores that dominated the prison made it almost a safe place, different from the brutal, lawless setting most would imagine. In the relative calm of this environment Cullen would learn invaluable life lessons and come out of the experience a wise and grounded adult. With its gritty descriptions of life behind the concrete walls, colorful depictions of his fellow inmates, and acute insights about Korean society, Brother One Cell is part gritty prison story, part cautionary tale, and part insightful travelogue into the places most people never see.
"In May 1994, Thomas, a slacker vagabond teaching English, was arrested in Seoul, South Korea, for smuggling hashish into the country. He served three and a half years in various prisons and was released in 1997. In this strangely uneventful memoir, Thomas recounts his trials and tribulations in flat, unmodulated prose. Using an unnecessarily complicated flashback style at the beginning, Thomas presents himself as an innocent abroad — a symbol of the legions of disaffected middle-class youth wandering the globe aimlessly looking for, well, they don't really know. While teaching English to Korean children, Thomas falls in with an unsavory lot and heads to the Philippines for a drug deal. This goes awry, and he lands in prison, where he meets and befriends various other foreigners. One prison is like a U.N. of convicted losers. Most troubling is that while Thomas gives the reader plenty of detail and keeps the story moving forward well enough, he seems little affected by the experience. It is as though, as a relatively privileged American, Thomas is so stunned by being forced to serve his full term for his crime that he is unable or unwilling to be humbled by the experience." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"[An] offbeat coming-of-age story, the tale of a wide-eyed, innocent, middle-class American thrust into a world of deprivation and daily trials that speed his passage into adulthood and a deeper understanding of himself and the fallen creatures around him. Told simply, and with extraordinary good humor." William Grimes, New York Times
"His account...is gripping." Booklist
"Reflective, often highlighter-worthy prose....Thomas...lyrically describes his Zenlike effort to stay sane through shoe-factory work and prison basketball." Outside
"Part travelogue, history lesson, prison commentary, and cautionary tale, Brother One Cell reminds us that travel is often an interior pursuit at heart." Vagabonding.com
With its gritty descriptions of life behind the concrete walls, colorful depictions of his fellow inmates, and acute insights about Korean society, Brother One Cell is part gritty prison story, part cautionary tale, and part insightful travelogue into the places most people never see.
Cullen Thomas was just like the thousands of other American kids who travel abroad after college. He was hungry for meaning and excitement beyond a nine-to-five routine, so he set off for Seoul, South Korea, to teach English and look for adventure. What he got was a three-and-a- half-year drug-crime sentence in South Korea's prisons, where the physical toll of life in a cell was coupled with the mental anguish of maintaining sanity in a world that couldn't have been more foreign. This is Thomas's unvarnished account of his eye-opening, ultimately life-affirming experience. Brother One Cell is part cautionary tale, part prison memoir, and part insightful travelogue that will appeal to a wide readership, from concerned parents to armchair adventurers.
About the Author
Cullen Thomas was raised on Long Island and now lives in Brooklyn. This is his first book.
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