In 1885, a ten-year-old boy named James Oscar Baker was convicted of manslaughter and placed in the Idaho Penitentiary. Author Leah Pileggi wondered what it must have been like for James, a mere child, surrounded by convicts in the difficult world of prison life. She based her debut middle grade historical fiction, released August 1, on this boy.
In Pileggi’s Prisoner 88, the court sentences Jake Evans to five years in the Pen for shooting a man during a barroom brawl. How does a ten-year-old survive incarceration? Jake is a plucky, independent, determined youngster who had to grow up too quickly. He doesn’t seem to mind prison life. When he lived with his vagabond father, life was difficult. In jail, Jake is given clothes, plenty of food, and a bed to sleep in every night, albeit in a small locked cell. The warden, a couple of the guards, and a few of the inmates take Jake under their wing and watch out for him. Jake works every day tending hogs for the Criswells, a local family who also become fond of Jake. Reluctantly at first, Jake learns to read. He strives to learn to read well enough to read a final letter from his father.
Life in the prison becomes routine for Jake, until a few inmates plan a breakout. Jake is nearly killed, and then struggles with guilt because one of the guards died from a bullet intended for Jake.
Through petitions from the warden, the Governor of Idaho reverses the court’s decision and Jake is released after serving almost a year. He’s sent to a foster family who takes him in as a farm laborer. We’re left with the sense that Jake may be leaving one prison for another, but Jake nonetheless feels optimistic about his future, and that positive outlook is what really matters.
Prisoner 88 is written in first person from Jake’s point of view with a unique vernacular and voice that creates reader sympathy for the character. The reader can’t help but root for Jake. Highly recommended for fans of middle grade historical fiction.