Gilbert and Sullivan Set Me Free

Gilbert and Sullivan Set Me Free by Kathleen Karr  

Libby Dodge, 16, doesn’t have much going for her. She’s the youngest inmate at Sherborn Women’s prison among murderers, thieves, and prostitutes, and she’s also the one inmate likely to be released into the real world.    

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.

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