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Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko
Al Capone Does My Shirts. Gennifer Choldenko. United States of America: Putnam Juvenile, 2004. 228 pages.
In life, I believe that there’s something that we’re all good at, whether it be baseball, science, or singing. Isn’t that sometimes the basis for what we chose to be when we grow up? This “something” is our strong point even though we have other things we’re okay at. I think autism brings out this strong point to its extreme and leaves out the other points. There’s no more moderately good, just extremely good and bad. Such is the case of Natalie Flannagan, a character with autism within the novel Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko. In this story, Natalie’s thing is numbers; she’s a mathematician. Within just a couple of minutes (perhaps even seconds), this girl can solve some of the most difficult math problems in her head! Even though she has this extraordinary skill in mathematics, her autism causes problems—problems…like the fact that she “never grows up” and “stays ten years old.” It’s almost as if her spirit and mind had wandered into Neverland and could not escape. Natalie is the cause of this whole story. If not for her (and maybe her brother, Moose, the main character), there would be no story.
Alcatraz is an island near San Francisco where you’ll find the “worst of the worst”—con men, hit men, embezzlers, rapists, murderers, you name it. The other few residents would be the guards and their families. Due to his sister’s problems, Mathew “Moose” Flannagan must move to such a place with his family. His sister, Natalie, had autism, but no one had any clue how to fix it or even what it was until 1943—around eight years after this story takes place. Their family had tried many things to cure Natalie—the UCLA, the aluminum formula, the heat treatments, the Barriman School, and now the Esther P. Marinoff—as stated by Moose in the story. However, all of them end as failures. Even the Esther P. Marinoff can be deemed as a failure because when Natalie was first tested to see if it would work, she had failed. Mr. Purdy, the headmaster of Esther P. Marinoff, however suggests an alternative: Natalie could have sessions with Carrie Kelly in order to help her problem a little, and perhaps after improvement, she might be able to enter the Esther P. Marinoff.
In order to pay for the sessions with Carrie Kelly, Moose’s mother offers piano lessons in the city. Due to this, Moose has to watch Natalie. However, his mother also has lessons on Monday—the only day when everyone comes after school to play baseball! The plot thickens when the tie of friendship between Moose and Scott—the boy who runs the baseball games and is Moose’s friend—begins to loosen. Though Moose was able to get a game on a Tuesday, her schedule (for lessons) suddenly changes to Tuesdays instead of Mondays! Due to this, Moose takes Natalie outside to look for baseballs that might’ve been hit over the fence during the convict baseball games in order to strengthen their bond once more. One thing about Natalie does begin to bother him though. What does 105 stand her?
As things would have it, 105 is not a thing but a convict. Just who is he? And what has he been doing with Natalie? These questions haunt Moose when he first discovers (and meets) this mysterious 105 that Natalie has spoken of. Though he gains a baseball from the convict, Moose is wary of him and decides to keep Natalie away from him. The man was dangerous; why else would he be on Alcatraz? After Natalie begins to grow mentally, returning home from Neverland, the parents decide it’s time to give the Esther P. Marinoff another shot. Again, failure was the answer given. In order to get his sister into Esther P. Marinoff, Moose decides to do something a little bold—write a letter to Al Capone and sneak it in with the checked mail. Strangely enough, Natalie gets into Esther P. Marinoff soon after due to a new branch for older children being opened, ending the story.
In my opinion, this was an excellent read, telling an interesting tale. Also, although the story took place around seventy-six years prior to the current time, it seemed like something that would happen in this time, this future—taking away Alcatraz, of course. (It is no longer a prison, after all.) Having a sibling with autism sounds like a common problem here in our time and day. It might as well work almost the same way as Natalie had except (a) you would know what it was, and (b) there are places for people with autism. Nonetheless, they still will act the same way as Natalie, and you might need to send them to a “special place” when they older because their minds don’t work exactly as a completely healthy person’s would. Such difference causes great discrimination as stated in a quote by Mother Teresa, “If you judge people, you have no time to love them.”
In addition to that, I love the suspense that the book built up along the way. When you see the title, the first word—or name I should say—is “Al Capone,” isn’t it? After all, he was viewed as a “modern-day Robin Hood.” Part of the reason I kept reading was because I was waiting for Al Capone to appear. Before I had even opened the book, the suspense had already started building up. As I proceeded to the end, I was disappointed to find that he didn’t actually make an appearance; he was only mentioned. Though of course, he was very important in finally getting Natalie into the Esther P. Marinoff—a dream that the family shared. My favorite part of the book would have to be the end since it makes you think to what the little piece of paper means.
Al Capone is not the only mystery in this piece of historical fiction; there is also the baffling 105. After searching for a baseball, Moose goes to get his sister in order to return home, but she keeps speaking of “105.” 105 what? Birds? No. Stones? No. What could it be? …A convict!? Such was revealed only after a few pages; I think it should’ve been drawn out for longer than for a number of pages that barely adds up to a two-digit number. It would’ve made readers storm through the story, demanding to know what “105” was.
Of course, taking the reader into a land of wonder isn’t the only thing in a book. Many elements make up the story like characters. In this novel, Gennifer Choldenko creates Piper—daughter of the warren. In front of her father, she is “Daddy’s little miss” and acts all proper like a perfect, little angel. Behind this mask lies her true personality which searches for danger. Her movie star looks only helps to hide the evil hidden within. This is a character that adds quite a bit of spice into the story, dragging several of the other characters into her little schemes.
Piper isn’t the only thing to talk about when discussing characters in this book. About every character has a pretty good description when they’re first introduced. “We both look at Natalie. Her hair is like mine—brown and blonde all mixed up like birdseed. Different eyes, though. Mine are brown. Hers are green like the marbles nobody likes to trade away. But the way she holds her mouth too open and her shoulders uneven and one hand clamps down the other…people know.” (Choldenko 11) I can visualize Natalie perfectly in my head by now. Though I wish the description of the characters would be mentioned at times throughout the story, somewhat of a reminder of what they look like. Another disappointment was that there really wasn’t an antagonist to the story. The only character close to an antagonist would be Mr. Purdy since he is the headmaster of the Esther P. Marinoff—the school which refuses to let Natalie in but could possibly help her.
Another interesting point of this story was the theme. Even the evilest of characters can perform acts of good. Within this story, two of the convicts within Alcatraz—a place for only the “worst of the worst”—help Natalie. 105 helped Natalie in taking her first steps towards normalcy with their chats while Moose searches for a baseball. After receiving a letter from Moose, Al Capone assists Natalie in getting into the Esther P. Marinoff. It shows that even the darkest souls contain light deep within. For example, in the end of the video game Kingdom Hearts, the place called Kingdom Hearts—the heart of all worlds—was not darkness but light. Such shows that in the deepest reaches of the heart is light—goodness.
If I must make a final decision to whether I liked it or not, I would have it say I loved it. Its wonderful descriptions of characters in a world so similar to ours helped it to gain a list of my favorite reads. Of course, I wonder if Natalie truly ever “returned from her trip to Neverland” in the end and became a normal person. Perhaps it will be revealed in the sequel to Al Capone Does My Shirts—Al Capone Shines My Shoes by Gennifer Choldenko.