Friday, June 23, 2017

Reviewing While White: The Warden's Daughter by Jerry Spinelli

By Allie Jane Bruce

Set in the 1950s in the fictional town of Two Mills, PA, The Warden’s Daughter tells the story of 12-year-old Cammie’s spiral into depression and rage as she is forced to finally come to terms with her mother’s death and her own impending young-adulthood.

I find much in this book troubling, but first and foremost Boo Boo’s character--or should I say caricature?  To me, she reads as little more than a stereotype of a sassy Black woman.  Here’s an excerpt:

    “Now,” Boo Boo went on, “she be up there”--she gestured toward the apartment--“snootin’ around with y’all.  Like she live there…” She reached down between her bosoms and pulled out a huge red bandana.  She dusted my face with it, made me laugh.  “Y’all tell your daddy, fire that arnge hair and hire on Boo Boo.  Boo Boo’ll do him some dustin’ like he ain’t never seen!”

Here, we see a Black woman caricatured and dehumanized (her speech and “bosoms” add to the stereotype) asking, like a good mammy figure, to do some cleaning for her paternalistic White prison warden.  I wonder how many times this will be read aloud in classrooms, and how the above section will land with Black students (particularly Black girls) in the room.  I also ask: why is Boo Boo the only one with a nickname (Boo Boo? seriously?) rather than a real name?

Boo Boo’s function in the book goes from (stereotypical) comic relief to (spoiler) her suicide, which serves to propel Cammie even further into depression and self-destruction.  So, this Black character is functionally a non-humanized tool used to further the complex White main character’s development--a pattern that’s been identified as a problem in stories from Blood Diamond to To Kill a Mockingbird.

I also question the taste and wisdom of presenting a nostalgic, voyeuristic view of prison (centering a White warden and his daughter) with no racial examination or unpacking.  No book is published or exists in a vacuum, and publishing The Warden’s Daughter in the face of public cries to examine mass incarceration seems willfully ignorant at best.  In a time when we need children’s books that shine a light on the structural racism embedded in the prison system, I hope that authors and publishers have more, and better, books in store.  Those seeking more relevant and topical prison stories might try Jacqueline Woodson’s Miracle’s Boys and After Tupac and D Foster.  Other ideas?  Leave them in the comments!


Anonymous said...

Monster by Walter Dean Myers comes to mind, especially for examining racism in the criminal justice system.

Anonymous said...

Allie: I have enjoyed and learned much from your blog posts on this site, so thank you for this review. This is a book by a well-known author and therein, I think, lies part of the problem. Newly published writers and those seeking to enter the field are keenly aware of these issues. I've had so many good discussions with other authors (and editors as well) on how we can incorporate diverse characters appropriately into our writing without veering off into cultural appropriation. Perhaps once you receive the Newbery that scrutiny disappears...

You are correct, books are never read in a vacuum, but they are often written in one, particularly when many of us live in self-imposed bubbles. This deepens the need for increasing diversity and perspectives on the editorial side of the book publishing industry as a counterpoint.

K T Horning said...

Wow! Thanks so much, Allie. In just a few paragraphs you nailed exactly what bothered me about this book when I was reading it -- beyond the implausible plot. And what did you make of the little African-American boy she kind of kidnapped, whose mother later invited her into their home? That whole part was very weird to me, too.

EvelynC547 said...

Thank you for your courage, your insight and your willingness to speak truth to power.

Allie Jane Bruce said...

KT -- yes, thank you for bringing up the little boy! That plot thread read like a White-centric fantasy.

Another thing, and I didn't include this in the body of the review because it's not about race, but the relish with which Spinelli described Cammie's best friend Riley's burgeoning puberty/sexuality really, really bothered me.

Sharon, I like what you said about how books don't exist in a vacuum, but are often written in one. That's very true.

celestebc -- good point about MONSTER! That's an important title to mention in this conversation.

Unknown said...

I appreciate this. You've articulated a feeling I had when I read this book. The portrayal of Boo Boo rubbed me the wrong way. I'm not sure why Spinelli felt the need to go so stereotypical with that character. It was one of several problems I had with it, though.