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al capone does my shirts

27 august 2015

Al Capone Does My Shirts is a great title, and the novel's setting (kid grows up on Alcatraz in the 1930s) is clever and distinctive. You expect a lot out of this book and you're not disappointed: it merited both its Newbery Honor award and its status as the inaugural entry in a prestigious children's series.

I'd wanted to read Shirts for several years, a desire I could have fulfilled simply by checking it out of the public library, of course, but I sort of kept deferring the task till I could find a used copy for sale. Which I could have done with one click, but my lame point is really that this (and Choldenko's other Capone titles) are not easy to acquire at thrift or used-book stores. Kids, I would infer, hang onto them and re-read them.

Choldenko's narrator is a boy, Moose Flanagan, a plus-sized preteen with a love of baseball. But the characters who surround him are mostly girls, giving Shirts a nice cross-gender appeal. It makes sense that Moose would befriend a gang of girls, because on the island he has to take whatever demographic options he finds. There's Piper, the stuck-up daughter of the aristocratic Warden Williams. There's Annie, whose throwing arm may be better than Moose's, Theresa the plucky little tomboy – and Natalie, Moose's elder sister, who is stuck mentally at the age of ten, an autistic savant in need of special education that her family can't arrange and can barely afford.

Natalie is the reason the Flanagans find themselves on Alcatraz. Moose's father has found work there as an electrician and part-time prison guard so that Natalie can attend a special school in San Francisco. The trouble is getting her accepted there. Natalie can count a flock of seagulls at a glance or tell you the number of days between any two dates, but she often can't stop screaming or start moving out of a fetal position. Moose alternates between resenting Natalie and being protective of her. A group of boys might pick on the Flanagans, but Choldenko is able to make Moose's female friends plausibly on Natalie's side, even the mercurial Piper. It's a unique, offbeat cast of characters; you want to see what happens to them and you hope they succeed.

Little dramas unfold around the larger family crisis of Natalie's education. Al Capone really does do the kids' shirts. Convicts provide the labor infrastructure for the prison-staff families, cooking, sewing, and washing for them. Piper gets an entrepreneurial idea of taking in laundry from schoolkids on the mainland and having it washed by the likes of Machine Gun Kelly. The kids are initially impressed but disappointed when their shirts come back without bloodstains or bullet holes. Piper has to abandon her scheme due to lack of interest and her father's imperious disapproval.

I won't tell you how things work out, because the book ends on a cliffhanging note (a literal note, passed via the prison laundry). Not that you care, because even the sequel Al Capone Shines My Shoes is now years old.

I was intrigued by all the baseball in Shirts, but at the end of the day I cannot classify it as a baseball novel. The rule of thumb is that if you cannot remove the sports without unraveling the text, it's a sport novel. Baseball is relatively tangential here, a motif more than a subject matter. But it's well-deployed. In fact, Choldenko is unusually skillful at exposition and setting. It's hard to write about a period 70 years (now 80) in the past without betraying anachronism at some point, but I found Choldenko's historical fiction quite believable. Moose looks forward to the San Francisco Seals season (he would get to see Joe DiMaggio that year), and wonders who'll win the 1935 World Series. I hate to say it, kid, but not the Cubs.

Choldenko, Gennifer. Al Capone Does My Shirts. 2004. New York: Puffin [Penguin], 2006. PZ 7 .C446265