Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews

Gilgbert and Sullivan set me free

Gilgbert and Sullivan set me free

Kathleen Karr
For ages 12 and up
Hyperion, 2003   ISBN: 0786819162

Libby feels humiliated beyond anything she thought was possible. They have taken away her beautiful clothes and her lovely hat, they have deloused her as if she were a dog or cat taken off the street. Now she has to spend her days working in a laundry next to a woman who murdered her husband and her nights in a tiny cell. Life could not possibly get worse. What Libby discovers is that it can get better, something she never even considered. Hope comes in the form of a new chaplain, a Mrs. Wilkinson. This extraordinary lady believes in trying to improve the lot of women prisoners, and the way she thinks this can be done is through the power of music.

Thus begins an incredible journey of renewal, friendship and discovery, for Libby and the other women who are involved in the musical performances at the Sherborn women’s prison. In the process we learn what these women have done to end up in the prison, including Libby’s own terrible story of abuse and misery. Hers is a truly horrifying tale which will set teeth on edge and support that old cliché that “life is not fair.” Kathleen Karr has created an extraordinary book which is very hard to put down at almost every point in the story. First we wonder why Libby hides the nature of her crime to herself so possessively.  Did this quiet and genteel young woman do something truly monstrous? Then we wonder if she is going to survive in this harsh prison environment. So many obstacles are placed in her way, and even worse, old fears resurface.

Without a doubt this is a thought-provoking, heart-felt, and fascinating picture of a time and place that we never hear about when we read our history books or historical fiction.  It is a spellbinding and empowering story that reaches out to readers, and though it is set in a specific time and place, its message is timeless.

Kathleen Karr has added a very interesting section at the back of the book to explain where she got a lot of her ideas and material. Although Libby herself is a fictional character, many of the other characters in the book were real people, and many of the events, including the 1914 performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance”, were real.