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Gilbert and Sullivan Set Me Free

Review

Gilbert and Sullivan Set Me Free

It is the early 1900s, and Libby Dodge is in prison, utterly humiliated and feeling as if her life is over. They have taken away her beautiful clothes and her lovely hat, and 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 any worse. But what Libby soon discovers is that her life can indeed get better. 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, as Libby and the other women 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 prison, including Libby’s own terrible story of abuse and misery. Hers is a truly horrifying tale that will leave you on the edge of your seat and that supports the old cliché that “life is not fair.”

Kathleen Karr has created an extraordinary book that is very hard to put down. First, we wonder why Libby keeps 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.

Karr has added a very interesting section in the back of the book to explain where many of her ideas and material originated. Although Libby herself is a fictional character, a number 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. This is undoubtedly a thought-provoking, heartfelt, and fascinating picture of a time and place that is rarely talked about in history books or historical fiction.

Reviewed by Marya Jansen-Gruber on June 2, 2003

Gilbert and Sullivan Set Me Free
by Kathleen Karr

  • Publication Date: June 1, 2003
  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Hyperion
  • ISBN-10: 0786819162
  • ISBN-13: 9780786819164