Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Al Capone in a new light

I think that there is a justifiable fascination with Alcatraz. I remember when the magician David Copperfield escaped from Alcatraz on national television, back when he did those t.v. specials that had my entire family riveted. Okay, so it's an illusion, but it was very cool. The tales of The Rock and its inmates make for great stories and when my husband and I made a trip to San Francisco several years ago, touring the island was at the top of my agenda. It didn't disappoint. You could imagine these men, the worst criminals of their time, locked away with no hope of escape, the surrounding ocean full of dangers and the guards on watch at all times. What I didn't realize is that the families of the guards and workers lived on the island with them. The history behind that is very interesting and Gennifer Choldenko explores it in her two books, Al Capone Does My Shirts and Al Capone Shines My Shoes.

Matthew Flanagan a.k.a. Moose and his family have come to Alcatraz for his father to work there as an electrician and guard, and also to be close to a nearby school for his sister who has autism. It takes place in 1935, which was before autism was labeled as such, but I quickly figured out that is what is going on with Natalie. That time period is also when Al Capone was an inmate of Alcatraz and the whole world seemed fascinated by this fact. When Moose and his family arrive, the warden is quick to inform him of how fast his dad will get fired if Moose is caught ever talking about Capone to anybody, ever. Moose also becomes acquainted with the warden's daughter, Piper, who is both beautiful and devious and manipulative. There are other kids on the island which make for a fun ensemble. Jimmy and his sister Theresa who are loyal friends and good to Natalie, Annie the girl who plays baseball as good as a boy, and a few others.

Moose makes a friend at school, a boy named Scout, who is as equally obsessed with baseball as Moose is. A highly coveted item is a baseball retrieved from where the inmates play and Scout begs for Moose to get one for him. Trouble is, those balls are hard to come by since the inmates do their best to not let them get over the wall of the yard. Moose tries his best to find a ball, but with Natalie in tow, it's hard to look and keep an eye on her. When he discovers a small hole in the outer fence, he has better luck looking but that is asking for trouble.

Most of the kids are accepting of Natalie, except for Piper, but the adults are another matter. Moose's parents are anxious to get her into this school, but they deem her too old and unmanageable. She starts working with a local woman to try and re-accepted to the school and makes some progress. It grated on my nerves the way people treat Natalie and their family, but it is probably accurate. It's not socially acceptable to make rude comments about a person with disabilities now, but back then people probably considered it their right to tell somebody to ship their kid off to an asylum.

The second book follows right behind the first and has Moose come into direct contact with Al Capone, along with some other inmates. The story behind the titles of the books is that the inmates did the laundry of the families on the island, if the families took up that opportunity. The warden also had them doing plumbing, some cooking and also serving at parties. These inmates, considered to not be flight risks because of how close they were to finishing up their sentences, were called passmen. It surprised me how much time the kids were around these men, considering they were in the country's most secure prison for a reason. Choldenko makes her facts pretty accurate and even includes an appendix with references from books and interviews that she did.

I thought both books were fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable reading. Choldenko's storytelling was detailed, fun and interesting. You can't help but love Moose with his big heart and conflicting feelings about Natalie, Piper, Annie and Scout. And Al Capone for that matter. The man has unmistakable charisma and Moose can't help but get caught up in it, but be afraid of it at the same time. I had to keep reminding myself that Capone was a hardened criminal, a crime boss and murderer, no matter what favors he carefully doled out. The ending of Al Capone Shines My Shoes was awesome and Natalie proves to be a hero to the other kids. Great reading for you and any kids in your house that would have an interest.

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