By Suzanne Ruta
Updated March 17, 2020 at 03:05 AM EDT

Jimmy Santiago Baca was 22, and serving a five-year sentence on drug charges at an Arizona maximum-security prison, when he taught himself to read and write. The dictionary was a revelation, a lifesaver. He ”got so overwhelmed by all the word choices that I had to confine myself to describing the dungeon windows embedded with chicken wire.” This raw, vigorous memoir skips his later career as a poet and screenwriter and homes in on his difficult beginnings — the orphanage, the streets, prison violence. A long riff on boxes (”in the orphanage…so many kids came and went down the hallways with boxes in their arms”) concludes triumphantly: ”I lived out of a box, not in one. I was a witness, not a victim.”