One of my favorite kinds of nonfiction is the graphic memoir. Absorbing the author’s art alongside the text gives me insight into the author’s experiences that I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. I get to see how they picture themselves and the world around them, and how they interpret their own experiences in a visual way. I’m not a hugely visual person, but I really like this format – it’s great for the nonfiction reluctant reader in me.
In Prison Island, Colleen Frakes writes about her experience growing up on McNeil Island, located off the coast of Washington state. It was the United States’ last prison island, accessible only by sea or air. Her memoir is told in two different times: one during her family’s time there when she was a middle schooler, and the other when they all return as adults to say goodbye to the island as it is officially shut down. The scenes from the past, therefore, become reflections, musings on her unusual childhood, and the tone is best suited for adults or older teens (though there’s nothing objectionable about it for a middle school audience).
The premise was really interesting to me, not the least because I lived and worked for four years in a prison town in Texas (though I could drive in and out whenever I pleased). There were a lot of similarities. The adults who lived on the island were all employed by the prison; in my case, the prisons were the biggest employer and the main driver of the economy. You also just got used to having prisoners around, as did Frakes and her family. They didn’t always stay in the prison – and I don’t mean escapes (though Frakes does relate one story about an escape). One of my favorite stories to tell people about living in Huntsville was that the city got trustee prisoners to help us move boxes into a new wing of the public library. Each of us had a couple of prisoners we supervised, and the city got cheap (or free, as far as I know) labor. This concept was new to me and it’s new to almost everyone I share it with who isn’t acquainted with the prison system. As the name indicates, these trustee prisoners were the more trustworthy of the inmates – but they were also the ones who had the easiest time escaping if they tried.
Of course, the fact that Frakes lived on a prison island made her situation much different from mine in important ways. Just the fact that it was an island made it a tricky thing to get certain supplies we take for granted on the mainland – like a fresh pizza. Everyone on McNeil Island was associated with the prison in some way, and it was pretty sparsely populated as a result. The kids had to go off-island for school. There would be a telephone call made to everyone when it was suspected a prisoner was escaping or a riot occurring, and everyone was forced to stay inside, which happened frequently (false alarms, many of them). Such things never happened while I was in Huntsville (and as far as I know, there isn’t a system in place for warning anyone anyway, aside from the news).
I wish a bit more time had been spent on the past than on the reminiscing from the present. Frakes and her family take a tour of the island, hitting all spots they remember, and these aren’t the most riveting sections. Overall, the memoir feels a bit slight. Perhaps I was imprinting some of my own expectations onto the book – that it would be a little weirder, or a little more exciting (though I’m sure to Frakes it was weird enough). Still, it’s an interesting look into a pretty unique childhood, and it’s definitely worth a read for fans of graphic memoirs. The orange cover is a nice touch, too – though in Huntsville, all the prisoners wore white.
Finished copy provided by the publisher. Prison Island is available today.