Spinelli, Jerry. The Warden’s Daughter.

NY: Knopf, 2017.

Ever since reading Stargirl, I’ve been rather taken with Spinelli’s considerable skills as a highly original storyteller, recounting the ordinary lives of very unusual young people. The story this time is set in 1959 and focuses on twelve-year-old Cammie O’Reilly, only child of the warden of a large county prison in a fictional small town in the Schuylkill Valley of eastern Pennsylvania.

Cammie is a handful, known to everyone in town as “Cannonball,” and that last summer before she begins junior high is a very stressful time for her. Far more than for most adolescents, really, because her mother was killed when Cammie was an infant, saving her from being run over by a milk truck. And living in the apartment over the prison’s reception room, hanging out with the guards, is hardly like the family life her friends experience.

Not to say there are no women in her life, because there are two. The first is Eloda, the trustee who serves as their housekeeper, cook, and caregiver for Cammie. The other is “Boo Boo,” an oversized black prisoner and professional shoplifter, who becomes Cammie’s confident, friend, and audience. Cammie spends much of her time that summer trying to get a mother-like response out of Eloda, even if it’s just a scolding, so she misbehaves in every anarchic way she can think of — but nothing seems to work. That last summer of her pre-teen childhood is very much her “bad time.” But there are major events and changes looming, too.

I especially enjoyed the author’s depiction of life as a kid at the end of the Eisenhower era because Cammie and I are only a couple of years apart in age. And even though things were different for me in San Antonio, the basics were much the same. Dick Clark’s American Bandstand — where Cammie’s fame-seeking best friend, Reggie Weinstein, becomes a celebrity for a whole weekend — and nickel candy bars, and riding your bike all day long without adults hovering over you, and transistor radios (“You can hold it in your hand! It doesn’t need a cord! You can listen to music anywhere!”), and all the other details of that time which really make the story. But there are also some serious points the author wants to make about what family and friendship mean. I’m definitely going to be working my way through the rest of Spinelli’s books.

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