RoadTrip America

Routes, Planning, & Inspiration for Your North American Road Trip

Al Capone Does My Shirts, by Gennifer Choldenko


Al Capone would probably have been more comfortable laundering money than shirts, but that's exactly how he spent his days at Alcatraz, according to the author of this delightful and informative audio book.

When his father accepts a job as a prison guard during the Great Depression, Moose Flanagan and his family take up residence on the isolated island in San Francisco Bay that houses Al Capone and society's most notorious murderers, rapists and other criminals. Although living in an apartment in the shadow of the forbidding prison and having murderers for neighbors is strange at first, Moose quickly makes friends among most of the island's other youngsters and travels by ferry with them each day to San Francisco where they attend junior high school. It's on one of these trips that Piper devises a money-making scheme to capitalize on their proximity to Al Capone. Moose develops a love-hate relationship with Piper, the spoiled, undisciplined, mean-spirited daughter of the warden. In any other situation, he would simply avoid such a trouble-maker, but they are classmates and travel companions and she's the prettiest girl he's ever known. Life would be almost perfect for Moose, if it weren't for the fact that he's responsible for taking care of his older sister, Natalie, a girl afflicted with what would now be diagnosed as a severe form of autism. The Flanagan family chose the Alcatraz job because it puts them close to a special school where they hope to find help for Natalie, but Natalie's bizarre behavior creates problems for Moose and puts her acceptance at the special school in jeopardy.

Choldenko's book satisfies on many levels. Set in 1935, it deals with actual events, locales and figures in history, qualifying it as historical fiction. Told from the point of view of a typical boy of the time who voices thoughts like "I want to be here like I want poison ivy on my private parts," it appeals to boys as well as to girls. Although written for an adolescent audience, the book will charm, inform and entertain readers of all ages. Adults will probably be surprised to learn that Alcatraz was home to families as well as to criminals at one time in our history. They might also find that Natalie's behavior reminds them of children they knew and wonder if their long ago childhood peers were also victims of autism.

At the end of the book, Choldenko discusses the history of Alcatraz and the people who lived and worked there. She explains why she chose to write about autism and its effect on a family and on an entire community. In addition to being informative and thought-provoking, the book is extremely entertaining. I had the opportunity to relisten to the opening pages of the book with 3 sweet, well-read girls, ages 7 to 12. As I watched their delighted faces and heard their half-suppressed giggles at Moose's description of Alcatraz as a rock "covered with bird turd and surrounded by water," I realized that this is a book that's perfect for group or individual enjoyment by the whole family.

Ruth Mormon

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