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Gilbert & Sullivan Set Me Free Hardcover – June 2, 2003
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From School Library Journal
Grade 5-7-Karr's novel celebrates the transformative power of music and theater. If it were not based on an actual event, this story of how a production of The Pirates of Penzance changes the lives of inmates at a women's prison would be easy to dismiss as unrealistic or far-fetched. However, there really was a Sherborn Prison for Women in early-1900s Massachusetts. Mrs. Wilkinson, the chaplain who insisted on bringing music inside its walls, was a real person, and Libby Dodge, the 16-year-old protagonist whose life is most deeply affected by her involvement in the operetta, is also partially based on an inmate. Libby is immensely likable, and it's easy to root for her and her fellow thespians from the start. When she finally reveals the true circumstances behind her life of thievery, she earns even greater sympathy, though the idea of her being granted a full music scholarship is a bit hard to swallow. Still, the book boasts a unique setting inhabited by a colorful cast of characters that is not often seen in children's literature. And if the main message is a bit heavy-handed, it will resonate with readers who have been lucky enough to experience the true joy of theater.
Ronni Krasnow, New York Public Library
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Gr. 6-10. This poignant drama is based on a true event in 1914, when the inmates of Sherborn Women's Prison in Massachusetts put on a stunning performance of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance. Karr tells the story through the lively first-person narrative of 16-year-old Libby Dodge, who keeps her crime a secret from the thieves, arsonists, prostitutes, and murderers with whom she lives. Libby gets a starring role in the musical, and she finds the freedom she never had in the "outside cheating world." The force behind the performance is the prison's chaplain, a woman who dares to talk about reform instead of punishment. The feminist message is strong, and the social oppression is made personal through the women who speak directly about their lives ("Who needs to read and write when you make your living flat on your back?). Yes, Libby's stardom and release are happy-ever-after contrivances, but Karr brings close a huge cast of characters--in prison and on stage-- never downplaying their anguish, even as she celebrates the spirited community that comes together to find the best in each other and put on a spectacular show. Hazel Rochman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
Top customer reviews
But the real world has nothing to offer Libby, not that prison has much either. At least in Sherborn's walls she has a family of sorts, plus roof over her head and food on her plate. And unlike Libby's mysterious past, she's not manipulated or abused.
But when the new Chaplin, Mrs. Wilkinson rolls into town and introduces, not only lively Libby, but the whole lot of women locked in the prison walls, to Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Pirates of Penzance," the world of Sherborn inmates is suddenly transformed.Each inmate participating in the performance play an involved and important role in the production - from set design to costuming - all of the women shine. But none as bright as Libby.
From one song note to the next, Libby's life in prison is transported for bad to better in an instant. As Libby pours her heart into her lead role, she doesn't realize that her biggest role is yet to be played - Libby Dodge, free and cleared citizen. Gilbert and Sullivan really did, in this case, set Libby free.
Kathleen Karr's Gilbert and Sullivan Set Me Free is a book with many layers. On the surface it's a book about how music and performance are so powerful they could change lives. But within the books many layers readers have a chance to step back in time, and understand the happenings of true events - Sherborn was a real prison, and the "Pirates of Penzance" were once performed within it's walls, they have a chance to learn who Libby Dodge was, and why she was in prison in the first place. They also get the chance to better understand the life of women prisoners.
But what really makes Karr's novel so great are the cast of characters that are featured from Ma to Kid Glove Rosie, all of the character's in Karr's pages add depth, not only to the story, but to Libby herself. Because each is a part of Libby, only they can tell her story fully and completely.
Karr's quick paced and up tempo Gilbert and Sullivan Set Me Free is well researched and well written. Written from Libby's perspective, it is easy to see how much attention and care Karr put into creating this. Each minor detail is handled with respect and importance.
What makes this book so great is that it is 100% believable. It's a difficult task to weave fact into fiction, but Karr has mastered the art within these pages.
She is apparently educated, smart and only 16 years old. What could she have done to land in the Sherborn Women's Prison in Boston. Some of the other women there have committed heinous crimes while others are victims of the brutality and poverty of the early 1900s. With names like Second-Story Sal and Kid Glove Rosie, the women's stories are interwoven in the plot. An older woman, Ma McCreary, is part mother figure and part best friend to Libby.
The conditions in the prison are harsh but the arrival of Mrs. Wilkinson, the new chaplain, transforms their lives. Now a widow. her husband was a member of the D'Oyle Carte Opera Company and she is determined to bring music into the lives of the women of Sherborn. Ma and Libby are the first to join the new choir and the Easter performance of Handel's "Messiah" is so uplifting that the whole prison community is eager to support their next project, Gilbert & Sullivan's "Pirates of Penzance."
This is Libby's story though and as she confronts her past, she learns to look toward the future and the places her beautiful singing voice might take her. I was pleased with Libby's happy ending.
The whole story has a feel of the fantastic but it is a true story. This NY Times article from 1914 must have been part of Katherine Karr's inspiration for this book.
The Full Cast Audio performance is very well acted and rich with Gilbert and Sullivan's music which made this G&S fan very happy.