It Happened in Two Mills
The Warden’s Daughter
By Jerry Spinelli
During the summer between third and fourth grade, I went for a bike ride. We’d recently moved, and I wanted to visit my old next door neighbor, now ten minutes away. I looped around North Shore Road and used Garfield Avenue, a familiar path because it led to my middle school. This summer there were two schools—the old brick building that ended with fourth grade, and the new Community Magnet School, under construction and to be finished by the time I entered fifth. Pausing in a crosswalk, a massive construction yard behind me, I looked out between parked cars. To my left on the narrow, one-way street, a pickup truck idled.
I pedaled forward. Simultaneously, the truck jolted down narrow Garfield. Upon impact, the bike and I flew about thirty feet. Surviving with a concussion and my left arm broken in two places, I went on to enjoy some light physical therapy and a completely normal life.
Or so I assume. My romantic clinginess and difficulty with calculus might argue otherwise. But I’ve lived my entire life as if this event—which traumatized my family—was no big deal. It’s only recently, thirty-something and able to see children as fragile emissaries from a freer, more imaginative place, that I realize the size of my luck. I was hit just so. I landed just so. Emergency treatment followed accordingly.
The truck that hit Anne O’Reilly—in fictional Two Mills, Pennsylvania—killed her. It was a milk truck, driven by a veteran driver with an unblemished record. That Anne pushed her baby carriage out of the way is the dramatic instant upon which Jerry Spinelli’s new tween novel The Warden’s Daughter hinges. Twelve years later in 1959, we meet Anne’s baby, Cammie “Cannonball” O’Reilly. She lives with her father, warden of the Hancock County prison, in an apartment above the facility’s entrance. For the summer, a prison trustee named Eloda Pupko becomes their housekeeper, or as our protagonist calls her, the “Cammie-keeper.”
The first Spinelli novel I read was Stargirl, which remains my favorite for its balance of the saccharine and the elegiac. Maniac Magee, the author’s Newbery Winner, strikes me as too overwrought for its pedestal. The Warden’s Daughter, with a cover that recalls Stargirl and set in the same town as Maniac Magee, feels like a book for adult Spinelli fans to share with their own kids (or even grandkids). All the elements are in place to send seasoned readers on quite the nostalgia trip: long bike rides, neighborhood ball games, obsessing over American Bandstand. Meanwhile, the author’s perennial themes of race, loneliness, and forgiveness may offer his newest fans their first mature doses of such topics.
Beginning The Warden’s Daughter, I found the framing device that opens the story in 2017 endearing: grown-up Cammie takes her granddaughter to an aviary that was once the prison where she lived. Her emotions churn, and she starts “picking lint from the sleeve of memory.” Spinelli sketches her remembrances indelibly, often with graphic strokes that prove his commitment to entertaining mature audience members. Here, Cammie tells us that
Some kids had tree houses. Some kids had hideouts. I had the Tower of Death.
I had been calling that since I was little. How lucky was I! I lived in a hundred-year-old house—the prison had been built in 1851—that resembled a Norman fortress. The tower was the best of it. Dark. Gloomy. A single light-bulb threw frightful shadows.
When I was younger, I climbed the creaking stairs with delicious apprehension into the Middle Ages. The room at the top was circular. From the battlement slots that served as windows I pretended to zing flaming arrows into the hearts of attacking enemies. They screamed magnificently as I poured cauldrons of boiling tar upon their heads.
Other scenes may unfold a bit strangely to younger readers, like when Cammie’s best friend Reggie decides she wants to meet a murderer. She gets her chance when Marvin Edward Baker—who strangled sixteen-year-old Annamarie Pinto and drew a lipstick pentagram on her stomach—is arrested and brought to the prison. Then there’s Andrew, a young black boy, who lives in the Mogins Dip section of town. One day Cammie follows him home on her bike, and later takes him joyriding for hours, Crazy Big Sister-style. The idea of a twelve-year-old white girl absconding with a black child in 1959, for any reason, leaves much to unpack.
These plot threads feel snug in—and nearly essential to—a 1950s period novel. Moments with broader teen appeal include Cammie’s summer metamorphosis from tomboy to young woman before entering junior high. The glamorous Reggie trying and failing to give Cammie a make-over is straight from the YA playbook. Spinelli’s twist on the outcast-gains-popularity trope involves the Jailbirds, a clique of girls who adopt Cammie because she lives in a prison.
We adore Cammie because of the yearning that Spinelli invests in her—for maternal attention, for confirmation that relationships can and should define us—which helps sustain an emotional complexity not always found in adult fiction. Other vintage teen moments, like sing-a-longs, slumber parties, and sucker-punching your crush (Danny Lapella forgives and eventually dates our heroine), are firework-bright—but equally ephemeral—against the backdrop of Cammie’s struggle with Eloda Pupka.
Cammie wants Eloda to do more than dust and cook. She wants the quiet inmate to braid her hair and scold her for bratty outbursts. She desires, with all of her hard-wired prepubescence, the focused attention of a grown woman from whom she must keep secrets. Cammie even hides cigarette butts—stolen from the women’s prison yard where her presence is tolerated—so that Eloda will find them and castigate her. In an early scene, Spinelli’s dialogue establishes Cammie’s baseline impudence from which she’ll either sprout or molder. The woman says,
“Put them in the sink.”
I turned. She was standing by the table. She was looking straight, unmistakably at me.
“What?” I said.
She said it for the third time. “Put them in the sink.”
I heard the words. I understood them one by one. But what they added up to made no sense.
“Put what in the sink?” I said. In my mind I was doing her a favor by asking the question, by not turning my back on her and walking out.
“Your lunch things,” she said. “They go in the sink.”
What she was saying was utterly foreign to me, unprecedented. My job was to sit down, eat lunch, get up and walk away. Her job was to take care of whatever I left behind.
“Right,” I said. “So do it.”
I walked away.
Cammie spends most of the book either tugging on or yielding against those closest to her. While Eloda proves nearly impossible to move, Reggie is all too volatile. After getting on American Bandstand and being seen on TV by most of the country, Reggie assumes her star will continue rising. When a few pieces of fan mail come to nothing, and she becomes obsessed with gaining Marvin Edward Baker’s autograph, Cammie realizes that,
The focus of her dream had never really been Bandstand or Broadway or the movies. It was fame. Fame its own raw self. If fame would not attach itself to her, then she would attach herself to it. In this my friend Reggie was apparently not unique. I dared not tell her what my father had recently revealed to me: that Hancock County’s most famous criminal had begun to get fan mail of his own.
Spinelli provides space for this epiphany organically, and it fits well within the still-blossoming narrative. What Cammie doesn’t acknowledge is that she isn’t helping Reggie’s obsession. She herself visits the exercise yard to mingle with the prison’s thirty female inmates—in lieu of a therapy dog. There she befriends Evelyn “Boo Boo” Dunbar, a vivacious African American doing time for shoplifting.
That the relationship with Boo Boo is Cammie’s most natural is beside the point. The Warden’s Daughter succeeds best in illustrating that life will hack at a child until the adult emerges. Spinelli’s work on Cammie, for three quarters of the novel, is marvelous agony to behold. But the ending—by which time you may have forgotten this is a kid’s book—laces up too tightly in fairytale garb. Lost diaries lay repressed feelings bare, and all is thoroughly dissected for the youngest readers.
Nevertheless, Spinelli’s an established voice in the literary landscape. He doesn’t use death to make thin characters deeper and bland events colorful, as is the current trend in YA publishing. He does the work of showing how we have no choice but to cope with death, that it is one factor among many that shapes who we are, and not a gimmick that forces strangers to fall in love.
If The Warden’s Daughter can’t perfectly balance between mature period piece and tween drama, I’ll forgive. I encountered the manner of Anne O’Reilly’s death without expecting to. My breath hitched for the fictional lives affected by her loss. Cammie’s misery, after all, underlined what my parents were spared.
Justin Hickey is a freelance writer, and editor here at Open Letters Monthly.