Publisher: Charlesbridge Publishing
Publication date: 8/1/2013
The story of Jake came to author Leah Pileggi during a 2007 tour of the Old Idaho Penitentiary when a docent guide mentioned the fact that the youngest prisoner incarcerated there had been 10 years old. The prisoner’s name was James Oscar Baker, who had served a manslaughter sentence in 1885 after defending his father in a saloon fight.
Pileggi wondered how a 10-year-old might have endured imprisonment with none of the comforts of a warm, safe home provided by caring parents. She hoped to explore the character Jake and how he survived by writing the book Prisoner 88.
Pileggi’s historical novel for children might spark discussion of justice in the American territories of the 1880s. How fair were the courts if the poor, the young, the disadvantaged lacked the benefit of adequate legal representation? How far removed is our modern justice system from one in which children were incarcerated with adult prisoners?
The power of Prisoner 88 is in the questions raised about frontier justice as well as the reassuring message of hope set against the harsh reality of losing one’s freedom.
Pileggi writes this genuine first person narrative in sparse language and dialogue to reveal characters like gutsy and resilient Jake and an abundance of good-hearted friends and affable caretakers.
What can be so bad about three squares and a cot? Or someone to confide in like Joshua Nance, possibly subjected to the same questionable imprisonment as Jake?
Brother Nance and Shin Han patiently try to teach Jake to read. Mr. Wu plays familiar songs Jake knows on the Chinese banjo and the prison guard Henry amiably escorts him to work at the hog pen on the Criswell’s farm. Even Warden White Bead struggles with the reality of Jake serving his sentence alongside hardened adult inmates.
“I assume you’ll start with the Bible. But we will be acquiring a few more books and starting a library here one of these days. Idle hands and minds lead to trouble, Jake.”
“Like that trouble this afternoon,” I said.
White Beard was looking off somewheres past me. “That’s right. It’s tough keeping them all busy right now, even with the stone work.”
I had to know. “What stone work?”
“On top of the hill, Jake, just below the Table Rock, They’re cutting the sandstone to finish the fence, to replace the wood.”
They was working up high on them hills.
“I can cut up stone,” I said.
White Beard shook his head. “It’s too dangerous, Jake. They use dynamite.”
Pileggi hopes her readers see how Jake, imprisoned or free, might well have experienced a good life. The stars would line up to make it so.
Prisoner 88 by Leah Pileggi is a highly worthwhile read in historical fiction for children from Charlesbridge Publishing.
Category: Historical Fiction for Children