Prisoner 88, Leah Pileggi’s engaging debut novel, was inspired by a tour of the Old Idaho Penitentiary in Boise, Idaho. As Pileggi took in the sights of the “Old Pen,” the docent happened to mention that the youngest prisoner incarcerated there was 10-year-old James Oscar Baker, convicted of manslaughter in the 1880s. The idea for Prisoner 88 was born.
This evocative, heartfelt story, sure to appeal to boys, is narrated by Prisoner 88 himself. Jake Oliver Evans is a boy who hasn’t had much joy—or much of anything—in his first 10 years. Sentenced to five years in prison for shooting and killing a man who threatened his father, Jake tries to look on the bright side of things. Being confined to the Old Idaho Penitentiary offers benefits he’s never had during his old life with Pa: more food than he’s ever seen at one time (and every day at that), a chance to work with hogs and the opportunity to learn to read (though, especially at first, Jake’s not so sure he cares much about his letters).
Through Jake’s eyes, young readers will get a glimpse of life in Idaho Territory in 1885. Jake’s fellow prisoners are a diverse lot, including a Chinese American and a Mormon arrested for polygamy. But Jake manages to survive, and even win the hearts of the tough men around him through his cheerful acceptance of his lot and his willingness to work.
One of the values of historical fiction is the insight it provides us into the lives of people in other times and places. Thanks to Pileggi’s skillful storytelling, young readers will be rooting for Jake to find a future—and family—of his own.