Author: Gennifer Choldenko
ISBN: 0469674328, Scholastic, 2004
Genre: Young Adult
First Line: Today I moved to a twelve-acre rock covered with cement, topped with bird turd and surrounded by water.
It's 1935. Twelve-year-old Moose Flanagan has just moved to Alcatraz with his family, and he's not happy about it. Not one little bit:
The convicts we have are the kind other prisons don't want. I never knew prisons could be picky, but I guess they can. You get to Alcatraz by being the worst of the worst. Unless you're me. I came here because my mother said I had to.Moose's sister is autistic, and his mother's life revolves around the girl. They've moved to Alcatraz because his father got a better-paying job there that would allow them to send Natalie to a special school-- if they can get her accepted there.
Moose is a typical boy. He doesn't care all that much for school, and he loves playing baseball. Once they've moved to Alcatraz, Moose finds that his father is so busy picking up extra hours (and extra money) that he's too exhausted to spend time with his son. His mother has to take the boat to San Francisco every day so she can earn money needed for Natalie's schooling. Just as Moose begins to fit in with the other children on the island, Mrs. Flanagan's work hours increase, and Moose has to make sacrifices in order to take care of Natalie.
As I read this book, my heart bled for Moose. Everything in the Flanagan household revolved around Natalie and her needs. Natalie, Natalie, Natalie. No one paid attention to Moose unless he questioned the grown-ups' protocol, and then he got the kind of attention no child wants.
Choldenko's book is well-written and flows smoothly. I felt as though I were on Alcatraz during the Depression. The kids living on the island were kids: the warden's daughter was an up-and-coming con artist with her schemes to bring in some money; Moose's baseball playing buddies didn't hit a false note as they got used to their new player; and a six-year-old's explanation as to why a pregnant woman on the island needed to stay off her feet had me spluttering and cleaning tea off my monitor.
The most gratifying part of reading Al Capone Does My Shirts is the way Moose interacted with everyone and the way he began to grow up and see things through other people's eyes. Living with an autistic child is dealt with honestly, in part due to the fact that the author's sister was diagnosed with autism.
This is a book that both children and adults can enjoy. The period detail hits all the right notes, the pacing is sure and never flags, and the story is involving from first page to last. Choldenko's skill brings all these characters to life-- you commiserate with them, laugh with them, cry with them, and even try to solve their problems with them. Moose, Natalie and everyone else are real, and that's one of the best compliments I can give any author.
I've just heard about Choldenko's Al Capone Shines My Shoes. Anyone want to bet on whether or not I'll read it?
[Source: Paperback Swap.]