Review of Prisoner 88 by Leah Pilleagi
They always say don’t judge a book by its cover! That definitely applies in this case. Prisoner 88 is a wonderful historical fiction novel set in the late 1880’s in Idaho. The novel is based on the experiences of a real ten year old inmate who served time in the Idaho Territorial Penitentiary. It follows the incarceration of Jake Oliver Evans before the advent of juvenile detention facilities. He is a ten year old who witnesses his father scuffling with another man in a saloon and attempts to come to his father’s aid by shooting at the other man. His actions on his dad’s behalf land him in adult prison with a five year term for attempted murder.
Once he is there, he immediately becomes a target for the other prisoner’s since he is much physically smaller as well as being by far the youngest prisoner in the entire Idaho prison system. Inspite of these circumstances, Jake turns his incarceration into a positive experience. He arrives at the prison illiterate and unskilled. Through a series of tutors both good and bad, he learns how to read and write. Jake also learns how to raise pigs as a part of his work detail. Prisoner 88 starts out as a gritty story of prison life and ends by showing how through determination tough circumstances can be overcome and turned into a positive.
The one knock on this book is its cover. I originally picked up a copy of Pileaggi’s novel at my local public library and was surprised to see it emblazoned with a young adult sticker. It does not have the “flashy” cover of most current YA novels. Content wise, the YA label certain fits as there are incidents of hazing and prison violence as well as some mild language.
I would highly recommend this book for lower level middle, junior high and high school readers. Readers will enjoy meeting the likable Jake and the short chapters make it a quick read. This novel would also appeal to our upper level students who are new to learning English, as it is a key part of Jake’s personal journey in this novel.Highly recommended for middle grades and above.