Saturday, September 26, 2015

Book Review: Gilbert & Sullivan Set Me Free

As I'm always on the lookout for new books in audio form, I was thrilled when Sheila of The Deliberate Reader mentioned this book by Kathleen Karr, Gilbert & Sullivan Set Me Free. She said that this was a book best listened to because the audio provides musical accompaniment to the story and since the story is about Gilbert & Sullivan, this element was essential. I would have to agree. This is definitely a story where the audio automatically trumps physical reading.

Libby Dodge is a very young inmate at the Sherborn Women's Prison in the early 1900s. The story follows Libby from her first day of incarceration until she is set free. In the interim, she meets a wide cast of characters in the fellow inmates and employees at the prison. She is especially drawn to the new prison chaplain, Mrs. Wilkinson, a woman who believes that women can be reformed by exposure to the finer things in life ... things like Gilbert & Sullivan.

I found it difficult to get into at first, because I think the piano interludes (between chapters) were more disruptive than enhancing; however, the performance excerpts were helpful. Moreover, at the beginning, I didn't feel all that drawn to the main character. I believe this was caused by the author's desire to keep her crimes a secret at the beginning. Once Libby is thrown into solitary confinement and begins to divulge the events leading to her arrest and incarceration, I began to feel more drawn in by the story line.

At the end of the audio version, the author provides a brief explanation for the inspiration behind the book. The prison, the performance, and the reformatory chaplain were all real. The characters were embellished by the author's imagination, but the main character was drawn from a real-life inmate who stayed in the prison, despite her release, so that she could perform in the prisoners' performance of Gilbert & Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance. The book reminded me of the books of Gary D. Schmidt, another author who portrays the powerful influence of music and literature on young minds. I still would rank Schmidt's books higher (perhaps more accessible to today's young reader), but Kathleen Karr does an outstanding job of presenting the historical climate and rendering a good story.

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