The Warden's Daughter by Jerry Spinelli
Publisher: Random House Children's Books
Release Date: January 3rd 2017
Cammie O'Reilly is the warden's daughter, living in an apartment above the entrance to the Hancock County Prison. But she's also living in a prison of grief and anger about the mother who died saving her from harm when she was just a baby. And prison has made her mad. This girl's nickname is Cannonball.
In the summer of 1959, as twelve turns to thirteen, everything is in flux. Cammie's best friend is discovering lipstick and American Bandstand.A child killer is caught and brought to her prison. And the only mother figures in her life include a flamboyant shoplifter named Boo Boo and a sullen reformed arsonist of a housekeeper. All will play a role in Cammie's coming-of-age. But one in particular will make a staggering sacrifice to ensure that Cammie breaks free from her past.
It’s been a week since I’ve read this book and I’m still trying to figure out exactly what I think. My general feeling is that it’s a decent book, but not without flaws. The concept of a young girl living in a prison is definitely interesting, but Spinelli doesn’t quite hit the mark. The story is told mainly through Cammie in 1959, but we do start, end, and often flashback to current day Cammie. It makes the book feel more like a reflection back than in the moment story. This plot device is also part of the reason I think adults will find this book more moving than it’s intended audience.
For the record, it is moving? Yes, very much so. Cammie’s mother died when she was just a baby and at 12 years old she is desperate for a mother figure. Any mother figure. In fact, she has decided that the current trustee/inmate in charge of her, Eloda, should fill that role. The want is palpable and over the summer, Cammie does everything she can think of to make Eloda give her attention. It starts simple with morning chats while doing her hair, but it’s obvious that Cammie longs for so much more. However, when she doesn’t get the results she wants, she tries smoking and stealing to incite any reaction from Eloda. When it doesn’t work Cammie find herself spiraling more and more out of control. It isn’t until Eloda tell her to finally go to the corner where her mom died/face her mother’s death that Cammie comes out of her dark abyss.
While this scene hits home, the aftermath of it is really wrapped up a bit too fast for my taste. The next day she goes back to school and we’re quickly thrown into the future, when a 17 year old Cammie finally learns the truth; View Spoiler »Eloda did actually care. In fact, she had been free that whole summer, but decided to remain in prison because she knew Cammie needed her/someone. « Hide Spoiler First of all, what?! At first, I thought it was very moving but the more I thought it about the more I wondered who would actually do that? Who would choose to stay in jail for 3 extra months for some girl. Not to mention, that all her feelings toward Cammie that summer are revealed via a diary. It felt weak and in the end took away more from the story than it added.
Cammie as a character had her ups and downs. There is no way around it was quite entitled, especially at the prison. She is also a bit spoiled and bratty, but what typical 12 year old (almost 13) isn’t? Some of her behavior/actions are things I see day in and day out in my teen department. And while she had moments that made me sigh, she had great ones as well. I especially liked when she finally put an end to her friend romanticizing a murderer. After the third or so time she begged Cammie to get an autograph, Cammie drags her down to the grocery store and to the victim’s mother. She tells her to repeat to the mother what she is after. That scene was probably one of my favorites and showed that Cammie was growing up and coming into her own.
However, the biggest flaw in the book for me is the racial elements, especially Boo-Boo. Boo-Boo is a black inmate that is described as obese and jolly. She’s attached to Cammie and demands Boo-Boo time at the end of every visit where she fills Cammie with grand stories that are mainly lies. She never moves out of this stereotypical character, especially considering she commits suicide halfway through the book. A death that is used to send Cammie into a darker place/depression, even though their bond felt superficial at best. In fact, Boo-Boo felt more like a plot device than actual character.
The other character is four year old Andrew, a black boy who demands that Cammie take him on a ride around town on his bike, which she does. For hours. She even eventually befriends his family, after being scolded by Andrew’s mother. Nightly dinners are a regular thing as she grows older. Reminder, dear reader, it’s 1959 and this would have been a big deal. Even if 12 year old Cammie didn’t realize it, I do think it’s something that adult Cammie should have reflected back on. I agree with someone who said it’s the giant elephant in the room that no one talks about. I can understand not wanting to make a book about race, but it was an important issue at the same time.
In the end, this is a book that stayed with me for days. It’s a fast read and does pack an emotional punch. One that I think adults will feel more than kids. And while it was an enjoyable read, it is far from perfect and really misses the mark on racial elements.
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January 9: Bookhounds YA
January 10th: Reviews Coming at YA
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January 13th: Readers in Wonderland
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