Dear Reader: a letter from Vanessa Ronan
In Texas, driving long distances is just part of life. When I was little, I loved gazing out the rolled-down window towards the horizon as, blown at speed, the humid air cooled my face. I daydreamed imagined lives for each small town we passed. My grandparents lived just north of Dallas, and we visited them several times a year. It was a long journey from where we lived in Houston — a good six hours in the car. There were places we’d look out for, landmarks along our way that made the drive pass faster. One of these was the Huntsville State Penitentiary, and it was on these family road trips that, thinking back, I realise my fascination with prisons first began.
Visible from the highway, the penitentiary both frightened and intrigued my young self. Tall electric fences surrounded high brick walls. Guards with machine guns watched from high towers. In courtyards made small by distance, men the size of ants roamed the yard. What had they done to be locked in there?
Along I-45 big yellow signs read, “Do Not Pick Up Hitchhikers.” Once I asked Dad, “Why?” I remember well how hard and long he laughed. It became a sort of running joke after that every time we passed those signs even though we never saw a hitchhiker on that stretch of highway.
Often we stopped in the Huntsville State Park, just a seventeen-minute drive from the prison. It was lovely — pine trees surrounded a small lake full of bright blue paddle boats. Our family picnicked there and my brother and I played. One trip north when my brother and I were still quite little, Dad stayed home. Mom stopped in the park like always. A rusted-out pickup pulled up while we were eating. It was dusk; no other families were around, no park ranger. Three men got out of the truck and watched us a while before they came closer. All three men looked well rough. What I remember best was the instant fear — we could feel our mother’s sudden alarm, even as she struggled to hide it. When the men edged even closer, Mom cut our picnic short suddenly and hurried us back to the car. All the while the men watched. I’m not sure what it was about them — their oddly matched clothes, their unwashed appearance — that made us think they might have escaped from prison, but the menace with which they stared at us still runs shivers down my spine.
From youth, Huntsville always seemed to me a mysterious kingdom of dark souls. It lurked in my subconscious for years: the home of monsters. It is only recently that I’ve realised those early memories and imaginings were the seeds of my first novel, The Last Days of Summer. Writing it, I became that little girl again, fascinated by the stark prison that met my eyes.