Leah Pileggi’s Prisoner 88 is a fictional account of the real-life imprisonment of ten-year-old Jake Oliver Evans in the Idaho Territorial Penitentiary in 1885. Abandoned by his father and confined behind bars, Jake is forced to grow up quickly compared to ten-year-olds today. However, prison isn’t all bad: Jake begins learning to read, gets a free meal every day (something he can’t “hardly believe”), and ultimately learns valuable life lessons from his interactions with fellow inmates and prison staff.
I’ll admit that this piece caught me off-guard. Targeted to readers in the fifth grade, Prisoner 88 is not something I’d usually pick up. I was ill-prepared when it proved impossible to put down, despite the heavy subject matter. Simply written from the colloquial perspective of an endearing adolescent, this book is a poignantly honest and revealing rendering of America’s early prison system. Well-researched and detailed, Prisoner 88 is a pragmatic and engaging tale that will appeal to children and parents alike.