We are drawn to stories set within prisons, with their tales of escape attempts, the wrongfully accused, rivalries and friendships that turn on a dime and the challenges of life after release. Jerry Spinelli’s latest novel for children takes a different tack: In The Warden’s Daughter, the Newbery Award winning author offers the perspective of another kind of correctional facility resident, middle schooler Cammie O’Reilly.
Cammie and her father live in an apartment in the Hancock County Prison, a fortress-like building in the center of their small town. In many ways, it’s a lot like any other living situation: They have breakfast in the kitchen, he goes to work, she goes to school (when she’s not watching “American Bandstand” with her best girlfriend, Reggie) and other domestic goings-on. But her father’s bedroom window looks out over Murderer’s Row, and her neighbors include prison guards and female inmates, with whom she has daily through-the-fence chats.
It’s quite the interesting life for a curious, smart kid like Cammie—one that was inspired by a friend of Spinelli’s, a real-life warden’s daughter. “After I met my friend Ellen, she told me about her life growing up in the prison,” the author says in a call to the Pennsylvania home he shares with his wife, author Eileen Spinelli. “That was 15 years ago. It’s amazing it took so many years to realize what a natural story I had sitting in my lap!”
While Spinelli says Ellen’s life doesn’t resemble Cammie’s, the prison in The Warden’s Daughter is much like the real Montgomery County Prison in Norristown, Pennsylvania, where Spinelli grew up. It was there that he had a friend whose background inspired another important element of Cammie’s life: having a mother who sacrificed her life to save her daughter’s. “I patched in the memory of an old friend and fraternity brother,” Spinelli says, “who was a baby when his mother was crossing the street and didn’t see a milk truck coming, and threw him across the street to save his life.”
Stories and memories combine to make The Warden’s Daughter a coming-of-age tale that’s both familiar and new. Readers who live or have lived in unusual places and small towns will enjoy Spinelli’s spot-on rendering of that sort of life, and those who haven’t will look at such situations with wonder. Anyone who is or has been a 12-year-old on the cusp of 13 will relate to Cammie’s struggle with wanting to be mothered yet wishing people would see how grown up she is. And readers who’ve experienced strong grief will recognize the ways in which those grieving try to carry on, while people around them strive to balance delicate sensitivity and soothing normalcy.
Stories and memories combine to make The Warden’s Daughter a coming-of-age tale that’s both familiar and new.
For Cammie, the summer of 1959 is when things go decidedly off-kilter. She’s been doing a pretty good job of compartmentalizing her feelings, finding fun and relief in long bicycle rides, pick-up baseball games, adventures with Reggie and showing her dad how strong and helpful she can be.
But then, she realizes, “In the weeks after Mother’s Day, something was changing. Enough was no longer enough. . . . I was sick and tired of being motherless.” Of course, untreated PTSD would wear anyone down, and to make matters worse, the site of her mother’s accident, The Corner, is just blocks away from her home.
Intriguingly, as Cammie’s feelings swell toward a breaking point, Spinelli doesn’t shy away from having her rage periodically manifest itself in abusiveness toward those around her, including Eloda, the inmate trustee who’s been working as the warden’s housekeeper.
From a practical standpoint, Spinelli says, “Considering where I wanted the story to end up, that seemed to be the way to frame it.” He adds, “Not having been parentless [as a child] myself, I did my best to put myself in her situation and went from there.”
Cammie does realize her angry outbursts are wrong, and as best she can, she strives to manage her unmanageable feelings. Friends like ebullient inmate Boo, teen-queen Reggie and even a 5-year-old boy serve as a veritable village of support and friendship—but ultimately, it’s the steadfast and sympathetic Eloda who gets Cammie where she needs to go, emotionally and physically.
This climax between Eloda and Cammie is a finely written, heartbreaking, cathartic scene—and far from the only tear-inducing situation in the book. When asked if he ever cries when he writes his books, Spinelli says, “I’ve never had that question, but now that you mention it, I occasionally might get a little worked up as I’m rereading aloud a particular passage. I’m straddling both sides of the fence: being dispassionate enough to write as well as I can, and somehow, without tears flowing, participating as emotionally as I can for the sake of the characters.”
When it comes to prisons literal and figurative, Spinelli (who’s a big fan of the HBO TV series “Oz”) says he joins the rest of us in our continued fascination with that institution and its metaphorical counterparts: “Once in a while, when I hear news about prisoners or even an execution, I find myself thankful I’m not in such a situation,” he says. “[Our freedoms] are suddenly framed and put into perspective . . . just as standing across the street from a building that houses people who don’t have the things we [take for granted] makes us more aware of and sensitive to our assumed conditions.”
As for the real, long-defunct prison on which Cammie’s home is based, it’s currently the subject of several renewal-project proposals (including a lovely one that’s worked into The Warden’s Daughter). And Spinelli’s friend Ellen, the original warden’s daughter? She gave the book “a rave review.”