Module 10: Al Capone Does My Shirts

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I read Al Capone Does My Shirts, by Gennifer Choldenko, which depicts fictional characters in a real situation.The story takes place on the prison island of Alcatraz, in the 1930’s, when it was a fully functioning high security prison. Moose, a teenaged boy, has just moved with his family to the island, where his father has found work as an electrician. His autistic older sister, Natalie, is increasingly his responsibility, as she is rejected from various homes and schools as she is deemed either ‘not ready’ or ‘too old’. Moose, along with the other island children, attends school in San Francisco, where his classmates have a morbid fascination with the children who live on the island with some of the most notorious inmates, including Al Capone.The book’s title references the fact that the inmates on Alcatraz did indeed do laundry, as well as many other tasks on the island. There was not much of an interaction between the families and the prisoners. In actuality, prisoners and the families of the guards and other prison employees were fairly peaceable. In the book, the children wait eagerly for a fly ball to come over the fence so that they can have a real prison baseball, in reality children were asked to sing Christmas carols to inmates during the holidays.Moose’s sister, Natalie, has autisum, which was not understood at the time. The frustration of a sometimes brilliant, other times mute girl who counts buttons and eats lemon cake but can’t use pronouns is very realistically rendered. The ending, which I won’t share, has Al Capone doing a favor for the family, which is something that he apparently was known for doing.This book seemed right on point in terms of being historically accurate in terms of life on the island and life in general in the thirties. The theme of a young person taking on a great deal of  family responsibilities is something that many students beginning in Grade 5 could relate to. While nobody would have this exact situation of living on Alcatraz and taking care of an autistic sister, many children do look after siblings with learning differences and they would be able to relate to both the love and the exasperation that comes with the caregiving role. I thought that the parents characters were very believable. The exhaustion and short temper of the mother, while not saintly behavior, was real.  I highly recommend this book as a great read for middle school students of all types and genders.
This book lends itself to a book talk, and was in fact part of my own book talk at Brawerman Elementary School. I was able to find many photos of Alcatraz Island during the time in which this book is set. The students enjoyed seeing photos of the actual laundry at Alcatraz, or Al Capone’s mug shot as I talked to them about scenes from the book.
Choldenko, Gennifer Al Capone Does My Shirts (2004) New York, G.P Putnam’s Sons.
Set on Alcatraz Island in 1935, Choldenko’s (Notes from a Liar and Her Dog ) exceptionally atmospheric novel has equally unusual characters and plot lines. Twelve-year-old narrator Moose Flanagan has just moved to the island, where his father has been hired as an electrician and guard. At first Moose is spooked at being in such close proximity to the nation’s most notorious criminals, and he doesn’t know what to make of the all-powerful warden’s bossy daughter, Piper, who flouts her father’s rule about talking about the convicts (“You say [Al Capone’s] name and hordes of reporters come crawling out of the woodwork ready to write stories full of foolish lies,” the warden explains). At school, on the mainland, Piper hatches a scheme to make money from classmates (“Once in a lifetime opportunity! Get your clothes laundered by Al Capone and other world-famous public enemies!… Only costs 5 cents”) and forces Moose to help her. Moose has reasons for staying on Piper’s good side: his older sister, Natalie, has what would now be called autism, and Moose worries that her behavior will land the family in trouble with the warden. (Natalie’s condition is so poorly understood that an expert tells her desperate mother, “An interesting case… you should consider donating her brain to science when she dies.”) Choldenko captures the tense, nuanced family dynamics touched off by Natalie’s disability as skillfully as she handles the mystique of Alcatraz and the exchanges between Moose and his friends. Fast-paced and memorable.

[Review of the book Al Capone Does My Shirts]. Publishers Weekly. Retrieved from http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-399-23861-1

Review Two

Twelve-year-old Moose Flannagan doesn’t know how to feel about his new home. Sure, it’s neat to live right in San Francisco Bay, but the neighbors leave something to be desired. You see, Moose and his family live on Alcatraz Island, where Moose’s father has a new job as electrician and prison guard. At school on the mainland, Moose is a bit of a misfit. Not only do the other guys think living on Alcatraz is a little weird, they also don’t understand why Moose can’t stay after school to play baseball.

Instead, Moose has to head home to watch his sister Natalie. Natalie has autism, a condition that had not even been identified in 1935, when this novel is set. No one is quite sure how to deal with Natalie. Most “experts” tell the Flannagans to put her in an institution, but the family would rather try a variety of experimental therapies, which yield mostly disappointing results. Moose is the only one who can really reach Natalie, and he constantly clashes with his mother about the best way to work with her.

Moose and Natalie discover a new kind of community among the several families who live on Alcatraz Island, including bossy seven-year-old Theresa and the warden’s manipulative, sneaky (but also kind of cute) daughter Piper. In the end, the kids cooperate — with a little help from Al Capone himself — to find a place where Natalie can finally belong.

Believe it or not, this novel’s unusual setting is based on fact — the families of Alcatraz prison guards actually did live on the island. The author includes a helpful note explaining the historical facts behind the story, as well as a brief note about autism.

What really makes this a winning novel, though, is not the setting but its main character. Moose, who narrates the story, is responsible and trustworthy in spite of himself. The love he feels for his sister despite the frustrations she causes him shines through all his words. The relationships among Moose, his hardworking father and his well-meaning mother are also rich and dynamic. Even without its connection to the famous mobster, AL CAPONE DOES MY SHIRTS would still be a real hit.

Piehl, N. (2004) [Review of the book Al Capone Does My Shirts]. Kidsreads. Retrieved from http://www.kidsreads.com/reviews/al-capone-does-my-shirts

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