Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The Warden's Daughter by Jerry Spinelli

It’s summer 1959, and Cammie O’Reilly is 12 about to be 13. Her father is the warden of the Hancock County Prison, a castle-like place located in Two Mills, Pennsylvania, and they live in an attached apartment that overlooks the prison. Cammie’s mother has been dead since she was a baby, killed saving her daughter's life when she was hit by a milk truck while pushing Cammie’s baby carriage. Now, she and her father are cared for during the day by a prison trustee, or “cammie-keeper” as she calls them, an inmate who has been well vetted for security reasons. This is the summer that Cammie decides she needs a mother and she sets her sights on Eloda Pupko, their latest trustee. 

While she tries to finagle motherly feelings from the cold, distant Eloda, Cammie lives an otherwise busy life. Mornings, she likes to hang out with the women prisoners while they are in the exercise yard. Cammie’s favorite prisoner is Boo Boo Dunbar, a spirited, affectionate African American woman supposedly in for shoplifting but who is hiding a very dark secret. Outside prison, her best friend is fashion conscious, makeup wearing Reggie Weinstein, 13 going on 17, and whose greater wish is to appear on American Bandstand

By her own admission, Cammie knows that the other girls her age are moving on to adolescence while she clings to her childhood. When her anger bubbles over, she lashes out at people, so when a new boy in town shows an interest in her, Cammie responds by punching him in the nose. She is also basically a loner, who spends a lot of her time riding her bike and eating phenomenal amounts and kinds of food. Classic right? Running away from her problems and filling the empty mother-space in her life with food, and fighting everyone and any one who tries to get her to move on.

In the middle of the summer, a child murderer is temporarily housed in the prison, and Cammie suddenly finds herself with a few more friends thanks to Reggie who, after finally making it to American Bandstand, is now obsessed with this prisoner. Her new friends even nickname themselves the Jailbirds, and love visiting her at the prison. But as Cammie’s life spins out of control, she throws the Jailbirds out of her 13th birthday party (and her first sleepover), after which, they begin to distance themselves from her. 

But as Cammie must ultimately learn, "no mother is finally buried until her child climbs out of the grave." (pg 282) And it will take another tragedy, more loss, and a symbolic act for Cammie to be able to finally come to terms with her mother’s death and move on to adolescence. 

Spinelli set The Warden's Daughter in an familiar place for those who have already read his earlier novel Maniac Magee. And why not? Setting in this novel is vivid and realistic, and such an important part of the story. The Hancock County Prison is a character in its own right and its a place that Spinelli knows well, modeled on the Montgomery County Prison in Norristwon, PA, his hometown. I was curious about the prison, since it plays such a central part in this novel, so I looked it up and it is exactly as described: 
The setting is important for another reason - Cammie lives in her own kind of prison, a prisoner of her anger, confusion and grief, from which she must break out in order to be free of the past.  And yet, despite the nostalgic setting and for all her tragedy, Cammie’s story completely lacks a elegiac sense. 

Like Jack in Spinelli's earlier novel Hokey Pokey, the reader catches Cammie at a moment of transition as she finally must deal with coming of age that, unlike Jack, she is fighting every step of the way, unwilling to let go of her childhood and take responsibility for herself. 

This book is recommended readers age 9+
This novel was ARC received from the publisher, Alfred A. Knopf


  1. Hi Alex, I found myself reading and then re-reading your review, it is beautifully written. I really want to read The warden’s daughter a book I would not have heard of if not for you.

  2. Great review--it made me put the book on my To-Read list. I've enjoyed Spinelli's work in the past so I look forward to reading this book as well.


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