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!