I’ve got a confession to make: I judged a book by its cover. What’s worse, I did so for months. Okay, fine – maybe it was more like years.
The book in question is Gennifer Choldenko’s Al Capone Does My Shirts. It’s set on Alcatraz Island in the year 1935, and before I actually picked the thing up and delved in, that was the extent of what I knew about it. I certainly knew of it, though. My eyes lingered on the spine every time I stepped into my local bookstore, and the novel, written over a decade ago now, still pops up on all sorts of best-of lists. But having encountered plenty of novels, both those aimed at kids and adults, in which historical figures (especially lurid ones) are used (or abused) in order to add “heft” and “drama” to an otherwise flat, meager story, I passed over Choldenko’s book again and again.
I was wrong to, and I wish I hadn’t. Because Choldenko’s use of the famous prison and infamous mob boss is very subtle. Here and there, Alcatraz and Capone provide a subplot. Most of the time, however, they serve as setting, and one that Choldenko deftly uses to illuminatingly comment on her characters and the dilemmas they face throughout the story.
At the center of the novel is the relationship between our narrator, Moose Flanagan, and his sister, Natalie, who suffers from autism at a time when the disorder was hardly known and barely understood. Both Moose and Natalie are well-drawn, full-fledged, expertly handled characters, and reading about their relationship is a moving and fascinating experience. I can’t imagine – or, I should say, I have yet to encounter – a book better suited to serve as an introduction (and maybe even a kind of guide) to the joys and pains in being, and being related to, an autistic individual. And the Flanagan’s struggle to find Natalie the treatment and school placement she needs to thrive is, on a larger, yet subtler, level, also a struggle for them to get her (and, in certain moments, get themselves) the respect that every human being rightly deserves. This aspect is brilliantly magnified by the prisoners living right next door, who, horrendous as the crimes that put them into the prison are, nonetheless show themselves to be human beings – vulnerable, generous, thoughtful, and kind – just like everyone else. The prison’s warden and guards and some of the book’s other adult characters, meanwhile, provide occasional examples of the less positive but just as common aspects of human nature – avarice, corruption, prejudice, and malice – things you might expect to find pouring out of an Alcatraz inmate.
If all of this doesn’t get you wanting to read Choldenko’s book, then maybe the fact that it’s as funny as it is poignant will. Or the fact that she captures childhood as beautifully as any author I’ve ever read. I never devised a money-making scheme to get my classmates’ clothes laundered by locked-up criminals, and I never risked my life (not to mention my sister’s) in order to get a baseball that convicted felons had handled and hit. But still, the enthusiasms and motivations – the spirit – of Choldenko’s young characters rang true with my own experiences. And who hasn’t, as a child, faced the injustice of a parent abruptly changing the family’s plans, thus forcing you to miss a long-awaited birthday party, dance recital, or (in Moose’s case) baseball game. Everyone, I think, can sympathize with that.
Read this book. If it doesn’t fascinate and move you, then you might want to check your pulse. And the next time a book keeps popping up in your life, maybe don’t avoid it. At least learn a bit about it first. Read a few pages before you pass judgment. I know I will.