CM . . .
. Volume XIII Number 21 . . . . June 8, 2007
Readers familiar with the fiction and nonfiction writings of Deborah Ellis know that she writes passionately about the conditions of marginalized juveniles. In one of her most recent novels, I am a Taxi, Ellis took readers into a women’s prison in Bolivia. Jakeman also transports its juvenile characters into a women’s prison, this one being Wickham Correctional Institute for Women in New York State. The book opens with the letter Jacob (aka Jake) has written to the state’s governor, a letter in which he asks the governor to pardon his mother. Actually, of the book’s 16 chapters, the first 12 are prefaced by one of Jake’s letters to the governor, letters which remind the governor about Jake’s request for a pardon while providing readers with glimpses into Jake’s life. The thirteenth and final letter effectively closes the book.
On Mother’s Day weekend, Jake, 11, his 16-year-old sister, Shoshona, and a group of children from an inner New York City neighborhood, escorted by Ms. Granite, a social worker with children’s services, plus two young women on work placement assignments, are all aboard a chartered bus that is taking them on a 10 hour overnight trip to the Wickham prison where the children will have one of their brief, quarterly visits with a female relative, normally their mother. Within the prison’s highly controlled, sterile visiting area, the children experience very unnatural, constrained visits with their mothers, aunts or grandmothers.
Gradually, the history of the DeShawn family emerges. Jacob’s mother, Shanice, had been abandoned by Jacob’s father before Jacob was born. As the children grew older, Shanice, wanting to give her children the things that other children had, but lacking her own financial resources, acquired a well-heeled boyfriend, Rodney. However, when police later raided the DeShawn apartment and discovered a cocaine stash, Rodney made a deal with the DA, one which saw him receiving a greatly reduced prison sentence in return for his testifying against Shanice by saying that the drugs were hers. Following Shanice’s conviction, Jake and Shoshona were initially separated and placed in different foster homes, but their behaviors apart suggested they might be better reunited in the same foster home. Nevertheless, the siblings, as a pair, have continued to be bounced from foster home to foster home because Jake wets the bed and Shoshona “argues.” Now, three years later, Rodney, having served his sentence, has been released, but Shanice has at least that many years of her sentence yet to serve, the total number never being made explicit.
The book’s title, Jakeman, comes from the name of the comic book superhero Jake has created and illustrates. Jakeman is a normal looking kid who has barb wire that erupts from his skin when he’s threatened, legs that grow long when he needs to run, and arms that grow strong when he must fight, obviously all attributes that Jake wishes he had as he tries to cope with his ever-changing environments.
On the return bus trip to New York, many of the juveniles and all of the adults, with the exception of the trip’s replacement bus driver, become ill with food poisoning and must be hospitalized. The bus driver, refusing to wait until the sick recover, sets off on his own, accompanied by 10 children, including Jake and Shoshona, who also had not become ill. Along the way, the driver begins to drink alcohol, and, after “evicting” the driver from the bus, Shoshona and Harlan, another older teen, both unlicenced, share the driving duties. The children take advantage of the absence of adult supervision to break into Ms. Granite’s locked briefcase where they find their official files and read the contents. Essentially, the children learn that they have been written off by society which sees them all as being capable of little more than becoming future prison inmates, a belief that had also been openly expressed by the prison personnel during the children’s visiting time at the Wickham Correctional Institute for Women.
Collectively, the children conclude that the files’ contents do not reflect the reality of their lives and who they really are. After Jake shares that he has been writing letters to the governor, the group decides to confront the governor who, according to a newspaper article, will be visiting his mother at a nearby seniors home because it’s Mother’s Day. Though the children find that the governor has not visited his mother, she does know where he is, and she voluntarily accompanies them on the bus to the Annual Mother’s Day Governor’s Golf Tournament that the governor is hosting in support of juvenile diabetes.
Of Jake’s first 12 letters, the governor had responded to only one, the ninth, a letter in which Jake had expressed his frustration with the governor’s lack of action regarding a pardon. On that letter, the governor had jotted, “Get this kid off my back. He must be a nutcase.” Instead of some civil servant actually formulating a separate response, the letter, with the governor’s comments still on it, was simply returned to Jake. Though the children are able to deliver their message to the media attending the tournament, the governor, a skilled politician, then puts his spin on what they had had to say. For a brief instant, however, Jake manages to become his superhero, Jakeman, when police, mistakenly thinking that Harlan is going to assassinate the governor, shoot at Harlan, and Jakeman interposes his body, taking the bullet.
Harlan’s statement, after having read his “official” file, “We’re all going to become our files,” captures the book’s challenging theme: we, as individual members of society, have a choice to make regarding the futures of “all” children. We can choose to participate in perpetuating a situation in which the future failure of those society presently deems incapable of success continues to be a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, or we can elect to create a climate of opportunities for success for all, regardless of their present circumstances.
Though the book’s concluding section, which involves the children’s visit to the senior’s home and the cooperation of the governor’s mother, feels rushed and its happenings somewhat credibility stretching, it, nevertheless, does not significantly detract from the overall impact of Jakeman. Readers will undoubtedly leave the book rooting for Jake’s victory in his future run for the office of governor, a “threat” contained in Jake’s closing letter to the incumbent.
After 34 years teaching children’s and adolescent literature courses at the Faculty of Education, the University of Manitoba, Dave Jenkinson retires in June 2007.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.