The Warden’s Daughter goes off like a cannon, blasting Cammie O’Reilly, nicknamed ‘Cannonball’, over her Pennsylvania town on a bicycle, careening through a cast of supporting characters from preteens to prison inmates as she spends the summer before seventh grade in an attempt to escape- then grapple with- the tragic childhood loss of her mother. If this sounds intense, then you’re right– Cammie’s mom died in the act of saving her from a milk truck when Cammie was just a baby, and now she needs to face it.
Cammie lives in a prison with her father, the warden, but has the freedom to come and go as she pleases. This physical freedom, contrasted with the inmates around her, highlights the fact that Cammie is emotionally stuck. She is imprisoned by her inability to accept or understand her mother’s death. She flings herself from activity to activity, both convinced she doesn’t need anyone and at the same time craving a parent to impose order.
Cammie’s frustration takes a turn for the worse when her friend, a prison inmate, is found hanging by the neck in her cell. (again, intense) The shock and confusion caused by this new loss leads Cammie to despair (more intense), and only then does she finally lash out at her caretaker Eloda, who tells her to go back to the corner where her mother was killed (digging her fingernails into the concrete, super intense). After this act of remembrance, through Eloda’s unspoken aid, Cammie is finally healed.
Authority figures throughout the novel, especially Cammie’s father, retreat just when she needs them, as if to say, “She’s got to work this out for herself.” It’s unclear to the reader (or at least this reader) why they do not make more effort to talk to her, help guide her. For example, it may even be seen as laudable that Cammie’s father dismisses her idea of God as an attempt to create an artificial buffer for her grief, but then even the sympathetic reader wonders why the father provides nothing in its place. (Leaving aside the possibility that a genuine belief in God might actually open one to the redemptive grace necessary for overcoming such intense tragedy in the first place.)
Reason can govern our emotional responses, even the most violent in the most tragic circumstances, and needs to be trained to do so. The persistent good counsel of a trusted friend, mentor, or parent could have helped Cammie enormously. Instead, Cammie is allowed to charge down the path of self-destruction, only to be applauded in the end by her father for bravely confronting the loss with her own volition.
Implicit in this commendation is the indication that Cammie’s rebellious actions were not necessarily wrong. They helped her ‘reach down deep inside’ and expose her grief. The actions themselves are an unfortunate byproduct of her grief, which is beyond her control. In fact grief is not imprisoning Cammie; this philosophy of action is the culprit. If Cammie were held accountable for her actions she might develop the sense of autonomy necessary for emotional strength, that is, the capacity to understand or overcome intense bouts of emotion. Instead, The Warden’s Daughter places undue emphasis on the strength or vividness of an emotion; yet just because we feel something with intensity doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve come closer to understanding it. The idea seems to be that once Cammie has sincerely acknowledged her grief she has overcome it. The degree to which this is implausible lessens the redemptive impact of the ending and gives the story an unsettling air of melancholy.
Yet Spinelli writes with the confidence of a master story-teller. In his voice the story is fascinating, if disturbing. The prose is quick and pointed, as passionate and relentless as its protagonist. Each scene ends with a hook into the next, whether through a hint at further action or unexpected twist that keeps the pages turning. Thus the story grips its reader, but not very gently. In fact, the audience is seized and shaken pretty soundly. Supporting characters that could provide respite, like the cheerful toddler Andrew and his family, are introduced then left behind, only present to further emphasize Cammie’s estrangement. Others, like her celebrity-chasing friend Reggie, provoke Cammie to bouts of anger, even violence. Cammie’s frustration and pain comes through on nearly every one of the three hundred and thirty pages; this is a lot to take in.
I think the novel only succeeds if one is distanced enough from Cammie’s actions to criticize them as they happen. The pace and tone of the narrative would prevent this for a young reader. In fact the story intends to make its audience ride Cammie’s emotional rollercoaster, which doesn’t have a strap, then feel the catharsis of slipping out at the upside-down loop. A book should challenge a reader with difficult themes, but when it does, it needs to place these topics in a context consistent with our experience and provide the reader with a path to deeper understanding. I think The Warden’s Daughter makes sincere movement toward this end, but due to its underlying philosophy of grief and passion falls short.
The Warden’s Daughter could be an excellent book to read and discuss, especially as to how or why it leaves the reader unsatisfied. To the extent that its theory of our passions is widespread and accepted, it is a brilliant exposé of the problems with such a theory and even a cautionary corrective for a society obsessed with death. That is, if read and discussed with teachers and parents. In this way we would avoid the mistake of Cammie’s father, who leaves Cammie alone to fend for herself. Rather, these feelings should be named and understood within a larger context of human life and happiness.
The gripping pace of the narrative should keep an even less than casual reader hooked. Due to treatment of themes of suicide and death, I would recommend it for no one younger than high school.