Gonnerman calls her book Life on the Outside the Prison ‘Odyssey’ of Elaine Barlett. The young reporter seems to have a place in our society, like Homer in ancient Greece, of telling epic stories of homecoming. In Homer’s the Odyssey we are taken on a journey with our hero, so that he might return home after 20 year of war, imprisonment and trial in order to bring social order back to his family and play the role of his lineage. Upon returning home, he discovers that it is not as he left it, and he must endure another battle to secure his role and family. Elaine Barlett fights her own war, with poverty and the Rockefeller drug laws, sixteen years of imprisonment, and emerges as a kind of hero – returning home. However, Barlett also discovers that her freedom must continuously be fought, even within her own home and within society’s blockades.
Gonnerman has been reporting on the National justice system in America for over 10 years, revealing the accounts of those who have endured the harsh hammer of American law. The stories she writes give the reader a look at the individuals who are all too often blanketed beneath terms like, ‘felon,’ ‘sex-offender,’ and ‘drug trafficker.’ Not only are we given the opportunity to see who these people are, how they entered the justice system, but also, what it is like for them to return home. Gonnerman reports on people who are marginalized by society by getting up close and personal with the folk themselves and letting them shine through in her words. Her ability to do this in a strategic manner gives the reader some understanding of the social and judicious constructs that make re-entry, or reintegration into society so difficult. Gonnerman writes for social change, using the age-old method of storytelling in order to highlight the problems in our justice system.
Gonnerman reports, like Homer in his epic tales, using a narrarative that tells the story from multiple characters’ perspectives. Gonnerman, in Life on the Outside was able to use all the characters that interact with Elaine Barlett in order to bring dimension and objectivity to her telling of the prison Odyssey. Gonnerman did this by spending more than two years up close and personal with the Barlett family, noting the food they ate, specific interactions and facial expressions. Unlike Homer, her narrative doesn’t change from third person, however she does use tools, like shopping receipts and letters from her children to color pieces of an intricately woven journey. Gonnerman’s talent for writing on the National justice system in such a human way is an inspired way of invoking social change and evading stigmatization in society.