Alexander Gordon Smith’s book Lockdown: Escape from Furnace is an exciting adventure story that is fast-paced and interesting. While it has a highly entertaining and exciting story line, the book also presents interesting commentary on social issues of teenage crime and punishment.
Summary of Main Story Ideas
Alex, the main character and the narrator of the story, is a fourteen-year-old boy who has moved from petty bullying of his schoolmates to significant burglary. After two years, he has grown so successful in his thievery that the law targets him. He is framed for the murder of his friend and co-thief, railroaded into a conviction for murder, and thrown into the infamous prison “The Furnace.” Set a mile below ground level, the Furnace was created after a summer in which teen gangs went on a killing rampage. It is designed to be a place where criminals of any age—no special treatment for minor criminals here!—are jailed…permanently. Alex and the other children in his group of new arrivals are told by the evil warden that, “Beneath heaven is hell, boys, and beneath hell is Furnace. I hope you enjoy your stay.” Alex soon discovers that all the boys in his group have been framed just as he was. The Furnace is a place of horrors, with a warden who is both evil and weird, monstrous devil dogs with no skin which preyed on any unwary inmate, black-garbed storm trooper-like guards who randomly pulled inmates out in the dead of night to be turned into monstrous beings.
Other horrors include the hard labor of hacking out new cells to expand the Furnace, casual murder from other inmates, and a solitary “hole” that “is as good as an electric chair.” The critical question about this palace of horrors is how a society could allow it to exist. On of Alex’s friends answers that question: “I don’t think anyone on the outside cares. We did the crime, we’re doing the time. In their eyes we’re just as bad as the kids who went around killing everyone….As far as the outside world is concerned, we’re already dead.” Despite all these horrors, Alex’s spirit is undaunted. He and several others plan to try to escape, knowing that the slightest error means death—or worse. The plan requires daring, determination, and a recklessness expressed by his final thoughts: “There was nothing but death behind me, and probably nothing but death ahead, but at least this way I would be free. And smiling at the thought, I jumped.” The story ends with those lines…the reader does not know if he escapes or dies or is recaptured.
Most Interesting Ideas in the Story
For me, the most interesting ideas in the story were the dual issues of the horrors that man can inflict on other men (or boys, in this case; no girls appear in this story), and the strength of Alex’s determination to live in spite of the evil that surrounds him. The author explicitly evokes the cruel atrocities of the Nazi concentration camps in World War II—and in fact, the horrors in The Furnace are not far off from those of Auschwitz. Alex’s buddy Zee reminds him of the human experimentation done by the Nazis, but Alex doesn’t want to believe that is possible. He protests to his friend Zee:
“I mean, this is one of the most advanced countries in the Western world…They’re not just going to let somebody open a prison where a bunch of sick freaks do experiments on kids.”
“What about a prison where mutant dogs chew up the inmates?” [Zee] asked.
With the public blind to the tribulations of the inmates, these children are left to the far-from-tender mercies of a sadistic system. It doesn’t help that the Furnace is owned and operated by a private company not the government, thus lacking even an appearance of public oversight. Like the privately owned prisons now flourishing in the U.S., little public oversight opens the door to rampant abuses. Despite all these issues, however, Alex’s indomitable spirit prevails. It almost doesn’t matter if he succeeds or fails in his final bid for freedom. Either he dies…or he escapes. Either option is preferable to spending a lifetime in the Furnace. He has not been broken even by this horrific system. No matter what, he has won his battle with the Furnace and its evil warden.
Rationale for Writing the Book: The Author’s Message
Alexander Gordon Smith could have had many intentions behind writing Lockdown. There are several messages for the reader in this riveting tale. One is the importance of the choices we make at young ages. Alex can trace his descent into crime from the time he chose to steal twenty pounds from a schoolmate. That one decision started him down a path he could not leave. So one message is the importance of understanding consequences of even apparently simple or easy choices. A second message is the issue of being willfully blind to the evils perpetrated on other people. Alex cannot ignore his friends when bullies target them. He cannot always save them, but he sees evil and wants to try to stop it. He cannot believe that society can sanction as evil a place as the Furnace, yet he sees the reality of it all around him. He’s not an idealist, but he also does not succumb to the violence of the gangs and the evil around him. Another key message is Alex’s determination to live—the importance he places on being free. His courage and his strength of character are uplifting. He would rather die than live in the Furnace—and if he cannot change the Furnace, he can at least leave it—one way or another.
Conclusion and Recommendation
I would definitely recommend others to read this book. First, it’s exciting, fast-paced, and dramatic. From its opening sentence to the cliff-hanger ending, it’s thrilling. It’s not a comfortable reading experience—there is too much horror in it for that to be true. But this book raises issues that are important to think about. How much humanity is society willing to give up in order to feel “safe”? How much are all humans endangered by the mere existence of the Furnace? Alex, after all, was actually innocent of the crime he was framed for. If the innocent can be subjected to this punishment, is anyone safe? The action is exciting, the writing is thrilling, and the story is thought provoking. Most of all, the story is one that embraces life in the middle of death and pain. It is a story that will stay with readers for a long time.