Eleven year old Perry T Cook has lived inside the bars of Blue River Correctional Facility, a minimum security prison, all his life. Born not long after his mother Jessica pled guilty to a vehicular manslaughter charge, Perry has been able to grow up alongside her due to the clever managing of Warden Daugherty. Blue River offers Perry a roof over his head and an unconventional, but supportive family life, while he offers them the softening effect of innocence and the hope of a life beyond bars. Perry goes to school each day, sees his best friend Zoey and comes home to Blue River to high five the residents coming in from their work programs, do his homework and get ready for supper. After supper (with sporks), Perry and his mother plan for her parole that is only a month or two away. It is an unconventional life, but entirely satisfactory to Perry.
Then suddenly, an ambitious new district attorney discovers Perry living behind bars. Mr. VanLeer is convinced that living there has ruined Perry's life and is so determined to change Perry's life for the better, that he takes Perry home to live with him and his family as a foster child.
Perry, his mother, and all of Blue River is thrown into despair. Perry compares his life in the VanLeer household as that of a new intake in the prison. He has to serve a sentence there until his mother is released from parole--a parole that is suddenly thrown into jeopardy by VanLeer's interference. Knowing he has to adapt to life outside, without his mother and Blue River family, Perry follows Big Ed's advice to the newcomers in Blue River--(I paraphrased a little here)
Seek to succeed.
You're here to rise up.
Eye on the end--keep a clear vision of how you want to emerge.
Give purpose to each day.
Seek to understand before you seek to be understood.
Count your wins.
Although his life is unique, every young person reading this book can identify with Perry's struggles. Because Perry's struggle to make it living on the outside are similar to the struggles every kid faces as they try to find their way in the world. At some point we leave that which is familiar, we all face the unfairness of the world and the frustration of seemingly arbitrary rules that keep us back from the things we want most.
Perry meets those struggles with determination, fortitude, ingenuity, and an amazing outward calm. Really, the calm is almost eerie. How can a child, pulled from everything dear and familiar not act out in some way? And through all the frustrations with DA VanLeer, Perry never looses his cool and hollers. Maybe the rigidity of life on the inside has instilled unplumbed depths within him?
Clearly Perry is more emotionally mature than I am.
At close to 400 pages, this is on the longer side for the recommended ages (8-12), but the subject matter pulls you in and the pages seem to go quickly.
All in all, I liked this book. Perry and his mother and the residents of Blue River are fascinating people. Their stories, that Perry collects for a school project, are believable and heartbreaking. You want good things for these people.
Really everyone is terribly nice. If it wasn't a fascinating subject matter, the overall niceness of everyone (even the school bully comes round and helps Perry at a critical juncture in his mother's parole hearing) might come off as fairly fake and sugar sweet. There are token "cold cases" in Blue River, the ones Perry is told to steer clear of, but even the main villian in the book, Mr VanLeer, turns out to be misguided more than wicked.
The ending is happy. But a teensy bit unsatisfying. There were people I wanted to know more about--what motivated them to act as they did? And where did so-and-so end up? I didn't want the ending to change per se, I just wanted there to be an epilogue or something.
The characters are likable, the plot well done, and the story well paced. I did enjoy it. I just can't get over the eternal goodness of pretty much everyone in the book and my disappointment at the perfectly nice ending. Which is silly. I hate messy, angst-y books with depressing endings. But I need things a tiny bit more believable than this book.
If you approach this as a fun, elevating book you will love it. If you approach it thinking you will get to the nitty gritty of kids with incarcerated parents, well, I am just not sure this delivers.