Sunday, October 9, 2016

Al Capone Does My Homework

Al Capone Does My Homework
by Gennifer Choldenko
Recommended Ages: 12+

Moose Flanagan, 13, once had to write 200 times for his English teacher that he does not live on Alcatraz Island, even though he does. Also, the teacher who made him write the lines didn't apologize when she found it was true. One of the other children of the guards at the infamous prison off the shore of San Francisco was sent by her Sunday School teacher to a priest to confess that she doesn't live on Alcatraz; the next day she went back to the priest to confess to making a false confession. People with "Alactraz Island" on their personal checks or ID have been refused service or even turned into the cops as suspected jailbreakers. It's tough to live on the island where the most slippery and dangerous inmates in the U.S. penal system are locked up.

It's the winter of 1936, and Moose Flanagan knows even more reasons its a tough place to live. He is confused about his feelings for two girls - warden's daughter Piper, whom he has kissed one and a half times, but whom he doesn't trust; and his tomboyish best friend Annie, another guard's daughter, who is suddenly growing into a beautiful young woman. He is worried about his father, a sometime prison electrician who recently became associate warden and, thereby, a high-ranking target in a savage game that gives inmates varying numbers of "tough guy" points if they spit on, stab, or kill a guard or a warden. And Moose feels responsible for his older sister Natalie, who has a problem that today would be diagnosed as autism, and that makes her a handful when she is home on break from the special school she attends in the city.

Living on the island gets even tougher when the Flanagans' apartment burns one night when Moose is babysitting Natalie. He can't get over his worry that he might be responsible, since he fell asleep when he should have been watching Natalie. One of the other guards, who covets Mr. Flanagan's job, suspects Natalie of starting the fire. The guard's wife raises the shrillness quotient to the point of calling Natalie's school and getting her suspended, even before the results of the fire investigation come back. Desperate to find out the truth before rumors and innuendos destroy his family, Moose and his friends sneak around, trying to find a way to get the inmates to tell them what they know about the fire. Their attempts involve cockroach messengers, eavesdropping on an interrogation, and Moose's homework being swiped and returned by prisoners repairing the Flanagan's apartment. But instead, they learn about a completely different plot, unexpectedly linking a convicted con-man who once (almost twice) sold the Eiffel Tower as scrap, a civilian member of the island community, and one of Moose's closest friends.

This is the third book in the Moose Flanagan series, a (so far) trilogy of really well-researched historical fiction set during the 30-year era when Alactraz was operated as a federal prison. The main characters are fictional, but among the prisoners who really lived on Alcatraz were Victor Lustig, the alleged author of the Ten Commandments for Con-Men, and, of course, Al Capone. The book is filled with a mish-mash of genuine aspects of living on Alcatraz, such as the guards' families living in an apartment building that didn't have fire escapes and the prisoners using cockroaches as pack animals, with intriguing feats of imagination, such as the point-system for stabbing guards and wardens. But at the heart of all the humor, the local and historical color of the setting, the juvenile romance and the light touch of hard boiled mystery, is a serious human drama of a family struggling with their child's affliction, a young man learning an unexpected lesson that he can't hold himself responsible or everything, and a conflict within a close-knit community that almost tears it apart. It is a powerful, moving story with a payoff worthy of the first to books in the series, Al Capone Does My Shirts and Al Capone Shines My Shoes.

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