Staying on Alcatraz in 1935 is no picnic for its prisoners. It can be equally challenging for the “civilians” who live and work there, as twelve-year-old “Moose” Flanagan knows all too well. When Moose’s father takes a job there as a prison guard both Moose and his sister Natalie resist the move. For Moose, it is a matter of leaving his buddies. For Natalie, it means an enormous adjustment to new surroundings because she has what today is known as autism.
Moose’s amiable personality helps him make friends quickly amongst the other guards’ children. First there is Piper, the attractive, spoiled and manipulative daughter of the prison warden. Then there is Jimmy, the only other boy Moose’s age on the island. In spite of the fact that Jimmy can’t play baseball to save his life, he and Moose bond as boys surrounded by girls will do. Most importantly, however, is Annie. Although she is a girl, she can pitch a baseball better than anyone Moose knows.
In a contained community such as this, everyone seems to know everyone else’s personal business. This forces Moose to come to grips with his sister’s disability. While most of the children accept and love Natalie as she is, Darby Trixle, Mr. Flanagan’s primary rival for the position of assistant warden, seems determined to get her thrown off the island. What he does not realize is that the prison’s most notorious resident, Al Capone, knows more about what goes on at Alcatraz than anyone. In spite of strict rules forbidding contact with inmates, Moose finds himself communicating with the famous gangster via notes sent through the laundry–and discovers that even in prison Capone expects pay-back for favors.
Gennifer Choldenko’s series about life on Alcatraz during the Great Depression contains many edifying themes. Moose and the other children develop wholesome, realistic friendships while surrounded by solid adult role-models. Their community reflects the close-knit nature neighbors used to have in which everyone looked out for each other, and children respected all adults as representing their own parents. Mr. Flanagan is portrayed as a hard-working, loving, wise father who does what is right regardless of what others may think. As a result he has the respect and trust of both his children.
Perhaps most notable is Moose’s relationship with his older sister Natalie, whose character is loosely based on the author’s own sister. Although Moose is often embarrassed by her behavior, he is also fiercely protective of her. He understands her better than even his parents do, and Natalie rewards him for this with her unconditional loyalty. Her progress in overcoming her disability is due in large part to his efforts and encouragement.
Choldenko’s books do have an over-emphasis on romance and physical contact which seems misplaced in a series for this age group. While Moose appears to have reached puberty early (He has already had his growth spurt and his voice is changing at age 12.), he seems more fixated on the opposite sex and its physical appeal than is typical for boys this age. Additionally, Natalie (age 16) throws a fit in which she strips and lays down on the kitchen floor. The author clearly has personal experience with autism and this behavior may be typical for someone like Natalie. Unfortunately, the incident may present autistic children unfavorably to young readers who are unfamiliar with the condition. For mature readers, however, this series provides wonderful insights into family relationships and moral courage.
Jennifer Minicus is a mother and teacher living in Ridgewood, NJ.