Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko
The Plot: It's 1935, and Moose, 12, has just moved with his family. But this isn't another new kid in town book, because Moose's new town is Alcatraz. That's right; the family has moved to the Island that houses the infamous prison. Moose's father is a prison guard; and it's prison policy that guards (and other employees), along with their families, live on the Island. Why move your family to a prison with murderers and criminals like Al Capone? It's the Depression; so it's not a bad job at all. Plus, there's Moose's sister Natalie. Something is wrong with Natalie, and it's the last hope of Moose's desperate mother that a school in nearby San Francisco will do something magical to make Natalie well.
The Good: It's true; families really did live on Alcatraz Island.
Natalie has what would today be diagnosed as autism; in the 1930s, Moose's mother had to deal with being told it was all her fault for not being a good mother, as well as everyone advising that it would be best to hospitalize Natalie. While this is set 70 years ago, the impact and burden of a situation like this on the "normal" child is shown very well; Moose has extra responsibility because he's "normal," often cannot engage in typical activities because he has to care for and be sensitive to Natalie's needs, and feels guilty for feeling angry at Natalie. The stress is on the whole family as well, who have uprooted themselves in an attempt to find a "cure" for Natalie.
The book is set in 1935; Moose is 12. It's one of my weird quirks when I read historical fiction to wonder what happens to kids when they grow up. Moose would be old enough to serve in (and die in) World War II.
Once on Alcatraz, Moose becomes friendly with the other kids. The warden's daughter, Piper, is in his grade; she's a mix of a mean girl and a schemer. She bullies the other kids into devising a laundry scheme. See, the prisoners do the laundry for the families that live on the island. So Piper gathers the laundry of her classmates -- all the kids take a boat to a regular school off-island with non Alcatraz kids -- and promises them that Al Capone will do their shirts. For a slight fee, of course. Piper isn't just regular-mean, because if the other kids don't listen to her, she may use her influence with her father, the warden, to get the other kids' fathers fired. Despite this, I liked Piper.
I have to admit, while I liked this book I did end it with some questions. For example, it's a bit hard to reconcile the Al Capone in the book with the brutal real Capone. Yes, the author is clear that he's a criminal; but he's also an almost mythical creature to Moose and the others, and at a key point Capone performs a kindness.
Why Al Capone? Why 1935? Why the prison? Part of the answer is easy; Moose's family lives in its own prison; and Natalie's brain keeps her prisoner, also. Plus, the struggle of the family is intensified by having them so alone, without the schools, doctors, and other support systems that a present day family would have. But still -- why Al Capone? I mean, I know who he is; but will kids?
Regardless of that musing, this is a great book. Moose is an awesome kid, struggling to do the right thing for himself, his parents, and his sister. I love the way it shows not only how Moose both loves and resents Natalie; but also how Natalie herself is shown as whole person.
Finally, there is a great note at the end where Choldenko discusses the historical parts of her book and mentions her sister, Gina Johnson, who had autism.
Links: Podcast from Weekend America; California Readers Interview.