Wednesday, January 8, 2014

2014 Contenders: Prisoner 88, by Leah Pileggi

As Prisoner 88 opens, it's May of 1885, and Jake Oliver Evans has been convicted of manslaughter. He's on his way to the Idaho Territorial Penitentiary, where he will serve a five-year sentence for his crime. All of this has befallen Jake at the ripe old age of ten.

This novel, which marks Leah Pileggi's debut, takes a true event as its starting point -- a ten-year-old actually was sent to the I.T.P. in 1885 on a manslaughter conviction. The rest of the story, however, is strictly fictional. The book does an excellent job of capturing the setting -- the grim, claustrophobic interior of a late 19th-century prison, in which Jake is perhaps the ultimate fish out of water.

The characters, however, are mostly stock types, and even Jake doesn't have much more than two dimensions. A lot of time is spent on Jake's struggles in learning to read, but the payoff didn't seem to me to be worth the subplot. Most of the plot, really, is fairly thin, and the events leading up to the book's action climax seemed more than a little  forced to me.

I wish there was more depth to Prisoner 88, because the setting is so unusual. I can't think of very many other children's books set almost entirely inside a prison that aren't either fantasy novels or WWII internment camp types. I'd love to read more of Leah Pileggi's work, and I think one has to consider this a debut that shows some promise. I just can't see it showing up on Newbery day.

Published in July by Charlesbridge

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