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Prison Island: A Graphic Memoir by Colleen…
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Prison Island: A Graphic Memoir

by Colleen Frakes

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Memories are apt to return when someone revisits her childhood home after a long absence. Colleen Frakes’ journey was prompted by the closing of a prison in 2011.

Both of her parents had worked at prison facilities throughout the Northwest when she and her sister Liz were young. McNeil Island was unique. Not only did it involve a longer stay than her parents’ previous assignments, its geography forced lifestyle changes for the whole family. McNeil Island, “the last prison in the U.S. accessible only by air or sea,” became their isolated home.

Frakes is now an adult living in Seattle. She begins her graphic memoir at a moment when she was working and living in Vermont. Upon hearing that the prison (and access to the island) was closing permanently, she and her family venture back to their “hometown” for a final visit. The bittersweet trip releases a series of flashbacks as her family rides the ferry and wanders the island. The illustrated book becomes part travelogue complete with maps. Frakes and her family try the doors, wander into abandoned buildings, stop by the cemetery, and visit the beach. At each stop Frakes shares incidents pulled from her memories. The recollections aren’t full stories; they are merely glimpses of life on an isolated island. Most are sad; more frustrating than traumatic. One episode recounts her attempt to order pizza and coordinate its delivery. Another tells of a shopping trip to Tacoma that was rushed by the demands of unforgiving ferry schedules and stymied by a store’s need for a street address (which didn’t exist on the island). Trying to host a sleepover with off-island school friends became even more complicated when a prisoner escaped. That escape aside, Frakes praises the island for being safer than other potential communities. It was also abundant with wildlife not often seen on the mainland.

The drawings in Prison Island are expressive and plentiful. The words are few and straightforward. (This would be a very short book if it was not in a graphic format.) The story is simple and uncomplicated. There are no significant subplots or flashes of great excitement involved. The book’s value derives from its gentle look back at a unique childhood on a lonely patch of land in Puget Sound. The quiet experiences and observations document something unfamiliar to most of us, even though they happened only a few miles across the water.

Shelf Appeal: Teens who enjoy graphic novels or are interested in reading about someone their age growing up in atypical, socially-remote circumstances will find this book interesting. It may prompt them to consider how they might cope with life on a restricted island and with daily ferry commutes to school. Locals who grew up and went to school near McNeil Island (which describes this reviewer) may also be intrigued by the brief window into the world of former classmates who had these sorts of experiences.

-- I wrote this review for the Books section of the Washington state website: http://www.WA-List.com ( )
  benjfrank | May 21, 2016 |
A cute, eye opening graphic novel about what it was like growing up on a prison island. Nothing profound or amazing, but it's a quick informative read that teens and adults will both enjoy. Plus, it's a little snapshot of history, it's a mini-memoir about a time past, and quite recent as well. While it is told through the perspective of a girl, boys would still enjoy it too. There are also several funny moments that made me smiles. The prison island was just closed in 2011. For fans of graphic novel memoirs, and prison history. ( )
  ecataldi | Jan 13, 2016 |
This certainly sounded like it would make for a cool story. The author's real-life account of growing up on a penitentiary island. Unfortunately, I found it dull. The author chronicles a last-chance final-look trip her family makes when the prison & island were shut down and depopulated. The story flashes back to episodes from her childhood on the island and life as the child of migratory prison guard parents in general. Slight humour and a fairly interesting peek into an unusual lifestyle, but nothing dramatic or climactic happens. I became bored half way through and had to push myself to finish it. Wasn't really worth the effort. ( )
  ElizaJane | Dec 8, 2015 |
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Dedicated to:
-My Center for Cartoon Studies family
Go CCS, you're the best!
-My McNeil Island family
What? I always said I was going to write a book about this place.
-And my Family family
Thanks for putting up with all this.
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It was Thomas Wolfe who said you can't go home again.
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The author shares her memories of growing up on McNeil Island in Washington State which also housed the prison where her parents worked.

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