It's January 4, 1935, and 12-year-old Moose Flanagan's the newest inmate at Alcatraz Island. At least that's how it feels. Leaving friends and baseball behind in Santa Monica to come to a "twelve-acre rock covered with cement, topped with bird turd and surrounded by water" (3) isn't exactly his idea of a life. But, Moose is one of those kids who follows the rules, dutifully doing whatever he's told. He's also a boy who loves his sister, however odd she may be. He knows the move to Alcatraz will allow Natalie a chance to attend a special school for kids like her, while giving his father a steady job to help pay the pricey tuition. So, here he is. Okay, he's grumbling a little bit - after all, his dad's working all the time, his mother's stressed out caring for Natalie, and there's no one on the island with whom to play ball.
It's not as if there's no one else on the island. After all, the prison's home to a mess of the worst criminals alive, including the infamous Al Capone. Even the worst of the worst need cooks, doctors, guards and so on and those workers have families - all of whom live on Alcatraz. There are plenty of kids, too - 25 counting Moose and Natalie - so it's not like there's nothing to do. Still, hanging out with a pesky 7-year-old and her sports-challenged brother hardly counts as great times. And then there's the warden's daughter. Snooty Piper's as conniving as the criminals her father oversees. When she gets an idea, Moose soon learns, it's best to just watch out. Of course, when she taunts him for being a chicken, he has to prove that he's not, which is how he winds up searching for convict baseballs, spying on the inmates, and running a laundering scam. All with his weird sister trailing after him. Not that she notices anything amiss - Natalie's too busy counting her buttons, obsessively arranging and re-arranging them, solving complex math problems in her head, and sometimes, zoning out completely.
When Moose accidentally puts his sister in harm's way, he realizes just how dangerous Alcatraz is for someone like Natalie. She needs help, the kind of help only professionals can give her. But she's a teenager (despite his mother's insistence that she's ten) with a severe disability - most would dismiss her as a lost cause. Moose knows he has to help her, even if it means enlisting Piper's help, even if it means angering the warden, even if it means breaking the rules. Moose doesn't want trouble, but c'mon, he lives on Alcatraz - it's not as if trouble's hard to come by.
Although Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko brings Alcatraz to vibrant life, the book's not really about the island. It's mostly a story of a boy and his sister. It's the story of a brother forced to deal with conflicting feelings of shame, resentment, guilt, but also love and devotion. It's also a funny, very readable tale of adventure. Lots of historical detail makes it crackle with authenticity and life. It's unique, engaging, heartbreaking, brilliant. I loved it. The sequel will be out in September - guess who'll be first in line to buy it?
If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for mild language and one disturbing situation