Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Warden's Daughter by Jerry Spinelli

Imagine not only growing up without your mother, but growing up in a prison. This is Cammie O'Reilly's life. Her father is the warden at Hancock County Prison.

The story of Cammie O'Reilly's mother's death is the stuff of legend. And Cammie knows the story well even though she was just an infant when it happened. But after almost thirteen years without a mom, she's decided now is the time. She's chosen her candidates well: a trustee at the prison who takes care of the warden's apartment (and Cammie) during the day, whose crime Cammie still hasn't gotten out of her, and another prisoner in for shoplifting. But as days go by and Cammie's plan to recruit a mom seems to be failing, her resolve becomes even more steadfast. 

You might think a story about a girl in search of a mom would be a sad one. You wouldn't be wrong. A lot of it is a subtle sad, the kind you get pondering over Cammie's problem and the obvious effects. Of course there's plenty of real sad as well. Cammie herself might not admit to being sad. Cammie would say she's angry.

Her anger manifests in a lot of ways, but it's clear most of that anger is honed and focused on her task. She longs for a motherly figure, attention, and, surprisingly, discipline! There's an almost heart wrenching argument that occurs at one point between Cammie and her best friend, Reggie, who, in somewhat insulting Eloda, gets Cammie to admit her goal of making Eloda her surrogate mother. But at the same time, as sad as Cammie's predicament is, it shows such a wonderful strength in her that is truly admirable!

While there were admittedly plenty of parts of The Warden's Daughter that left me misty eyed, it's really not all sad. Nor is it overwhelmingly so. It's impossible to read Cammie's story without a preponderance of hope for the girl. Cammie is strong willed and free spirited and guaranteed to win over each and every reader.

There's a great element of nostalgic fun to The Warden's Daughter too. Set in 1959, the story features a strong sense of innocence - amongst the children and, to some extent, the world via the small town of Two Mills. Cammie bikes throughout town, treats herself to her favorite meal at the local diner (she LONGS for scrapple night and day!), and has fairly free run of the prison itself, mingling with and befriending the female prisoners.

Pop culture references of the time are peppered throughout, especially in the music Cammie and her friends listen to (Reggie's dream, which is fulfilled, is to appear on Bandstand). 

That said, I feel there's a dark undertone to the tale as well, though. Darker than the grief that Cammie is feeling. A sense that the innocence mentioned above is coming to an end. It's maybe a sense too of the possible future for Cammie and the potential for parallels to some of the other characters in the tale. To say more might give something away, but I can say I walked away from this one with a sense of fulfillment regarding Cammie's story.

Rating: 4/5

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