Updated on March 26, 2015
Favors From Gangsters
My sister recently recommended that I make an effort to review some “boy books.” I admit that I do have a preference for romances, and that really limits my audience. How lucky for me, then, that Al Capone Does My Shirts (Gennifer Choldenko) fell into my lap!
The year is 1945; the location, Alcatraz Island. Matthew “Moose” Flanagan, age twelve, have moved to the island from San Francisco so that his father can begin work as electrician/prison guard. They need the work. It’s the Great Depression, after all, and with Moose’s sister, Natalie, being the way she is…
This book is a short read at just over 200 pages–but, make no mistake, length does not indicate difficulty. Natalie is autistic, a thing that we have enough trouble dealing with nowadays. But in the Thirties? The Flanagans have gone to any length to cure Natalie of her condition, to fix her. They do it out of love, of course, but there were moments when I, as an adult, was horrified by the way people treated her. Her mother lies about her age with the hope of getting Natalie into a school for children like her. They take away her coping mechanisms, hoping that this will force her to act like a normal child. They hide her away as much as possible. Granted, it’s all so that she won’t have to go to an asylum. But still, it’s hard.
The only people who readily accept Natalie are children (like seven-year-old Theresa) and convicts. The former are too young to understand her condition, and the latter are the outcasts of society. They work with her where she is, compulsive habits and all.
But the story isn’t just about Natalie or autism. It’s about a twelve-year-old boy who has to grow up far too quickly. Moose deals with leaving his old home and friends, adjusting to a new life, and taking care of Natalie–not to mention the regular pitfalls of being twelve. We learn from Moose that ignoring wrongdoing by not getting involved isn’t always enough; sometimes, we have to speak up. Also, the pretty girl is always bad news.