Since I was a kid, I’ve had a quirky habit. When I find a book I love, I can’t put it down — so far nothing out of the ordinary. But when I finish (and here comes the weird), I pause, then immediately flip to page 1 and begin again. And again and again and again. On the first round, I immerse myself in the experience of the story. Then I want to figure out how the author pulled it off — how they used words, sounds, syntax, rhythm — how the story took on a pulse and a heartbeat — how the novel took me by the heart and by the throat. I happily read my favorite books ten, thirteen, twenty times. Now I’ve found four new favorite books — Gennifer Choldenko’s Al Capone series — Al Capone Does My Shirts, Al Capone Shines My Shoes, Al Capone Does My Homework, Al Capone Throws Me A Curve.
I met Gennifer Choldenko years ago. Our kids (now grown) overlapped in middle school for a few years. We were the new family, and Gennifer kindly invited us to dinner. She radiated a crackling energy — warm, funny, bright — the same energy that leaps off the pages of her books. We’ve lived in different states for years, and we’ve exchanged a few brief emails, but that’s been the extent of our ongoing contact. Full Disclosure: I have met Gennifer, but she had no idea I decided to write this review.
Actually, I had no idea I’d decide to write this review. I’m 59 years old, and I usually don’t read books recommended for ages 10-14. When I do, I often become frustrated, finding the stories unidimensional and predictable. But these books took me by surprise. Gennifer’s stories are the perfect cocktail of grit and humanity.
These four books track a family living on Alcatraz, in the 1930s, when the prison was in full swing, housing Al Capone. “Moose” Flanagan moves with his mom, dad and sister to Alcatraz Island, off the coast of San Francisco, when Mr. Flanagan takes a job as an electrician and prison guard. Moose’s sister is four years older and she’s a handful. She pitches fits, is barely verbal, doesn’t like eye contact, obsessively counts buttons. Autism was barely understood at the time, and the Flanagans move to Alcatraz hoping that Natalie would be accepted into a nearby school trying to help kids with her sort of issues. In the meantime, Moose’s mom struggles to keep their home in order, but she can barely keep up with Natalie’s needs, and responsibility often shifts onto Moose’s shoulders. Moose’s dad is up to his eyeballs in one situation after another with the prison, while trying to remain a loving father.
In contrast to Natalie, the four novels portray Moose as alarmingly perfect. Kind, mannerly, gentle and a good baseball player. He’s huge for his age, but never uses his size as a weapon against others. He tries to look out for his sister, and fields continuous challenges created by living on a prison island, housing some of the most dangerous men in the country. Juxtaposed with the unique culture of Alcatraz are situations familiar from our own childhood-to- adolescence journeys — Moose’s first kiss, the smack of a baseball in his glove, the aroma of Italian cooking in a neighbor’s kitchen, the bonds of friendship.
Gennifer has meticulously researched the depression era of the 1930s, life on Alcatraz when the prison was up and running, and autism. Her stories are peppered with descriptions of the inmates — some sociopaths, some troubled, some angry, some narcissistic — and their relationships to the guards, the administration, the families. Scattered throughout are vivid anecdotes that pull the reader into the time and the place — a man licking ice cream from the ground in San Francisco, starving in The Depression — the ferry connecting the isolated Alcatraz community to the world beyond — the starch of laundered shirts (because yep, true to the title, Al Capone is on laundry duty and cleans Moose’s shirts).
As the novels progress, Gennifer’s psychological astuteness emerges and creates multi-dimensional emotional layers — which turn the stories from just entertaining into some kind of wonderful. Slowly, the reader realizes that Moose is too perfect. In his family, Natalie and her needs fill every crevice. There’s no room for Moose to be anything but flawless. His parents are dedicated, loving, and scrambling every moment to ward off being overwhelmed by their daughter’s condition. So Moose deals with his problems and his triumphs on his own. Sometimes he gets it right, and sometimes he creates a mess.
Gennifer pulls off a curious hat-trick. She conveys her story in a way that’s engaging and accessible for young teens, that’s complex and layered for adults, that’s both deeply meaningful and just plain fun for all ages. Her sense of humor is warm, kind and honest. She offers, in equal parts, the grit and the humanity of autism, of Alcatraz, of parenting, of growing up. The result is a joy to read.
Gennifer Choldenko’s Author Page