Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #31: Prison Island by Colleen Frakes

Colleen Frakes grew up in a prison. Well, next to a prison, to be exact, on an island that contained just the prison and some houses for guards' families. That seems close enough to me, frankly.

In fact, you could even call it a Prison Island, and Frakes did, for this graphic memoir. (I was going to call it her first, but I'm not sure -- it looks like she's had a book-format collection of her Tragic Relief stories, and something called Woman King which might have been in book format as well. It's the first book of hers I saw, which means precisely nothing.)

Frakes uses a quick, modern, almost sketchbook-like style here, mostly crisp black lines and occasional tones for texture. It feels informal, which matches the tone of the book: conversational, discursive, as if Frakes herself was telling the story to you directly.

That story is one part her life during those ten years she lived on McNeil Island, next to that state prison, out in Puget Sound -- it seems to be almost-but-not-quite the same as her teen years, which is a rough time to live on an isolated island next to a prison. And the other half of Prison Island is the story of the island's closing: she flew back to be there with her family for the ceremony, on one of the very last days the public was allowed on the island at all, and they drove around to see the sights one more time while they could.

The modern story is the frame: Frakes drops into flashbacks to tell the story of the McNeil Island years repeatedly before coming back to the present day. And that life was tough in odd, unusual ways: the island was basically a company town, with only fifty families living there and no amenities besides a ferry to the mainland. (No grocery, no movies, no shopping, no restaurants, no candy shop or convenience store closer than a scheduled ferry ride away, and getting back always meant racing to catch that ferry again.) And convicts do try to escape, now and then, and when they do, the whole island goes into lockdown -- including teenage Frakes, wanting to have a normal sixteenth birthday party.

Add all that to the usual issues of living in a small town and having a long commute to school every day: that was her life growing up. On the positive side, it sounds like the island was mostly unspoiled, with a lot of wilderness and nature to enjoy. And, after a childhood spent moving all the time, as her parents got jobs in different prisons across the state of Washington, McNeil Island was the home she had.

Home doesn't have to be perfect: it just has to be home. And McNeil Island was, for a while. Prison Island celebrates that sense of home: the places with memories, that annoyed you at the time but that you miss afterwards, the places that you'll always remember if only to tell the stories about how much trouble it was. And Frakes makes that real; reading this book is a lot like listening to a good storyteller talk about her life and adventures.

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