Monday, June 4, 2012

Al Capone Does My Shirts: A book Review

Murderers, mob bosses, and convicts . . . these guys are not your average neighbors. Unless you live on Alcatraz. It’s 1935 and twelve-year-old Moose Flanagan and his family have just moved to the infamous island that’s home to criminals like notorious escapee Roy Gardner, Machine Gun Kelly, and of course, Al Capone. Now Moose has to try to fit in at his new school, avoid getting caught up in one of the warden’s daughter’s countless plots, and keep an eye on his sister Natalie, who’s not like other kids. All Moose wants to do is protect Natalie, live up to his parents’ expectations, and stay out of trouble. But on Alcatraz, trouble is never very far away.


Traditionally, books that feature 12-year-old protagonists are for middle grade readers.  Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko is listed as a Young Adult novel.  The book felt like it didn't fit in either category. I believe Young Adult  and adult readers would enjoy it. However, this book did not hold me hostage.  I could have easily put the book down.  I probably would have needed to return to it eventually, but it NEVER threatened to keep me up all night.

The description above is actually pretty accurate of the book.  Their is no linear plot, though the theme is strongly toward family and identity. Moose Flanagan narrates the story and I must say he has some pretty interesting views of the world he's now living in, Alcatraz. The very first pages opens with:

Today I moved to a twelve-acre rock covered with cement, topped with bird turd and surrounded by water.
     I'm not the only kid who lives here.  There's my sister, Natalie, except she doesn't count.  And there are twenty-three other kids who live on the island because their dads work as guards or cooks or doctors or electricians for the prison, like my dad does.  Plus, there are a ton of murderers, rapists, hit men, con men, stickup men, embezzlers, connivers, burglars, kidnappers and maybe even an innocent person or two, though I doubt it.
      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.

Granted, some of this information is repeated through dialogue later in the book but it felt like a great introduction to this Newbery Honored book and I really didn't mind the repetition.

Chodenko has a way of keeping my interest.  When the novelty of living on Alcatraz Island in the 1930s began to wane, Chodenko introduced other elements to the story that kept me going. I don't want to go into too much detail about the different kind of dynamics you see in this book.  But one of my favorite was the families interaction with Natalie and Natalie herself.

Natalie is Moose's older sister. But their mother insists every year that she is 10. At the beginning of the book she's 15, by the end she's 16. Though the book itself doesn't reveal what's wrong with Natalie, which sticks to the times because the condition wasn't identified until 1943, the sophisticated reader could likely guess. And the author provides a great deal of information in her Author's Note at the end of the book, both on her research and Natalie herself.

Natalie has Autism.  And as far as I can tell, Chodenko gives a very accurate account of the condition--which apparently she grew up around.  Her sister "had a severe form of autism."  Natalie is likeable, and has a personality of her own, despite her condition. Her father took a job at Alcatraz with the hope of getting her into a school that could help "normalize her."  Her mother seems to be the one who fights the hardest for Natalie's well-being, though everyone fights for her in some way.  Even Natalie fights for herself.

The Autism is seen throughout the story and it is on the forefront of Moose's mind, especially since his sister's condition keeps uprooting his life. In some ways, the changes are small.  Other times, they're large. But Chodenko doesn't make it the sole focus of the book.  Moose plays baseball, tries to make friends at the new school he's attending, he gets into trouble because of Piper's, the Warden's daughter, scheme.

My main issue with this book is that I kept having to remind myself that Moose was 12 years old.  Possibly 13 by the end of the book.  His voice sounded too mature, though his actions would sometimes match a kid his age. Al Capone's actions at the end of the book seemed a little too convenient.  This may be because the book discuses the bad things he's known for and not the good, though it's a great setup for the book's sequel, Al Capone Shines My Shoes.

I would like to read Al Capone Shines my Shoes when I have some free time.  And I would recommend Al Capone Does My Shirts to anyone who enjoys historical novels, with well-rounded, realistic characters, who just happen to live on Alcatraz--which a lot of people actually did.  Boy or girl, adult or child, this book has a little bit of everything for the reader.

For those who are interested, I'll try to post a critical essay on Al Capone Does My Shirts, where I try analyze a writing aspect of the book.  For example, Moose's voice, the description or the way things are weaved into the book.

Have you read Al Capone Does My Shirts?  What are your thoughts?

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