I have been a huge fan of Jerry Spinelli's work since I read Maniac Magee in 1990! Maniac and others have a place in the Jerry Spinelli section on my 'keepers' shelves. If you haven't met his many memorable characters yet, I issue a challenge to change that during your summer vacation.
The setting for Cammie's story is Two Mills, Pennsylvania (where we met Maniac Magee and his friends). The year is 1959. Mr. Spinelli provides a backdrop that speaks to my soul; a time when I was almost the same age as Cammie and experiencing the sights, sounds, and smells of my own community, with friends and without parents. She rides her bike for hours, without supervision or concern for her safety. The scenes at the prison add drama and demons. Quite an unusual and exceptional place to call home.
Cammie's father is the warden at the Hancock County Prison. The two live in an apartment at the prison, cared for by one of the inmates, Eloda Pupko. Cammie is missing her mother who died when Cammie was a baby. Now, she is aching for someone to take her place ... another mother. She sets her sights on Eloda, believing that she can be that parent she so needs. Her loneliness and anger consume her.
As she struggles to deal with the depression she is feeling, she is prone to outbursts and aggression. She finds solace in Boo Boo, a gregarious and affectionate shoplifter who takes the young girl under her wing during outdoor time spent in the prison's exercise yard. She is disgusted by her best friend's worship of an inmate charged with killing a teenager. Her scheming for Eloda to be her mother is not working. Convincingly, another awful loss puts her over the edge. How could someone so young possibly deal with it all?
Cammie's voice is outstanding, while also heartbreaking. She begins the story in the present, and moves to the past: remembering its events, and; sharing her story with her granddaughter at the prison that has now become a birdhouse. She does not discount the stormy times experienced so many years ago. In the end, she returns her story to the present.
"She's hopping in front of me. "And Ganny! Ganny!
Puh-leeze" - her hands are steepled in prayer - "tell me
you really did it. You really did kick the Jailbirds our of
your birthday party."
I nod. "Every one of them."
Her yip of joy draws a disapproving head turn from the
young man at the computer. Of all my jailhouse stories,
this has always been her favorite ...
... We crack up. My granddaughter is funny and popular
and sweet-tempered. Every day I'm thankful she is not like
The book is infused with heart, never dull and never preparing the reader for what comes next. It is devastating at times, and that is as it should be. Unforgettable!