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A Knock at Midnight Reader’s Guide

By Brittany K. Barnett

A Knock at Midnight by Brittany K. Barnett


Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. The book opens with a vivid portrait of a young life balanced between all-enveloping family love on one hand, and disaster unfolding “a tiny arm’s reach away” on the other. What are the positive and negative forces in Brittany’s upbringing? How do these forces directly influence her throughout the narrative?

2. “A statue of a lone Confederate general towers over the Clarksville town center. . . . To hear my grandpa tell it, [it] was a warning regarding where the town’s heart lies.” What role do broader social forces (racial, economic, historical) play in the lives of people portrayed in the book?

3. “I loved that church,” Brittany writes. “It felt good to lay my burdens down.” What role does Brittany’s church play in her life?

4. “I wanted space . . . from my mother’s struggles, from witnessing her decline.” How does Brittany’s mother’s addiction, subsequent imprisonment, and further rehabilitation affect her and her future decisions? Do you think Brittany was right to move away when she did?

5. “[Mama] spent two years in a cage because she was sick,” Brittany writes. “We punish addiction in this country, treating it as a moral flaw instead of an illness.” Do you think this is true? How does Brittany illustrate this perspective throughout the book?

6. Under War on Drugs legislation, suspected offenders were incentivized by sentence reductions to inform on others. What was the intention behind this? In what ways did it backfire?

7. Other than the length of the sentences handed down during the War on Drugs period, in what other ways is the prison system shown to be dehumanizing?

8. “For Clenesha, Sharanda’s incarceration had been like a sudden death,” Brittany writes. Beyond the effects on prisoners themselves, what is the “ripple effect” of incarceration on their families and communities?

9. Brittany is careful to represent her clients as full human beings, getting to know their stories in great detail, as “there’s always more than what the transcripts say.” Aside from an appeal to their shared humanity, why does she believe this is necessary to help their cases?

10. How do the stories of Donel Clark, Sharanda Jones, and others demonstrate how quickly life can change? Each of these people made significant efforts toward self-improvement in prison. How should our prison system encourage and drive incarcerated individuals toward improvement and revitalization rather than life beyond bars?

11. A Knock at Midnight takes its title from a Martin Luther King Jr. sermon, which helps the author “embrace the hope, faith, and love necessary to continue the struggle for justice.” Are there other aspects of the sermon that inform the book and Brittany’s struggle? What, if anything, do you take from it personally?

12. Throughout the book, Brittany is faced with a choice between following her personal ambition in corporate law and her unending desire to fight to help free those buried alive by America’s legal system. Along the way, she experiences burnout, depression, and frequent setbacks. Do you think she chooses the correct path? How have you dealt with any related choices? What have you learned from Brittany’s perseverance?

13. “Within the walls of America’s prisons lies genius. Let us free it.” Beyond the core narrative of Brittany and her clients’ struggles, A Knock at Midnight tells a broader story of the importance of fulfilling human potential, the tragedy of waste, and the need to “move forward with purpose” and to find “our highest and best use.” How did this book make you think differently about the world as a whole and how you may get involved?

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