Monday, December 16, 2013

Al Capone Does My Homework (Al Capone at Alcatraz #3) by Gennifer Choldenko

Alcatraz grips the imagination. An impregnable rock prison where the most notorious criminals are locked up and none have escaped. This last installment of the Alcatraz trilogy won't let readers down. The complex plot has thirteen-year-old Moose trying to figure out who and why someone set their apartment on fire. His dad has just been promoted to associate warden and others want his job. Anyone working as a guard at Alcatraz is a target by the criminals, but the Warden is the big one with the biggest bulls-eye on his back. If a prisoner takes down the Warden, he gains status with the other prisoners as someone important. Moose doesn't know if its the criminals or Natalie that started the fire. He's afraid Natalie has but he isn't sure because he fell asleep when babysitting her. When Natalie is accused of the crime, his guilt deepens and he works to try and help her overcome some issues with her autism. His adventures are nonstop as the clues are revealed. When Piper starts acting funny and money starts showing up in the laundry, Moose is at a loss as to what is going on with the prisoners.  He pieces it together but not until it is almost too late.

The depth of the characters in this 200 page novel is satisfying, particularly the subplot involving Moose trying to help his sister be more accepted by others. Her autism affects their whole family and he is frustrated that she cannot look others in the eye. This makes her look shifty and suspicious of the fire, something his friends reassure him they know she didn't do and that he feels she didn't do in his heart. He's just not sure and agonizes over it. The secondary characters are rounded out in a way that they do not come across as one-dimensional. Even Bea is explained as someone who just can't admit to mistakes. The humor and depth is balanced along with a terrific plot that is tied up at the end.

The historical aspects of Alcatraz hooked me in the story. In the "author's notes" she explains that prisoners actually did tie cigarettes to cockroaches and use breadcrumbs to lure them into their cells and hence "share" their smokes. There was also only one phone on the island and no fire escape on the apartment building.  The author says she has a sister with autism which explains why Natalie's disease and dealing with it is so authentic. When Moose wraps her in a blanket because he knows it helps her calm down, I recognized this as one of many tactics for dealing with autism. This subplot adds a rich layer to the mystery and historical aspects of the novel. I can see why it is on Newbery lists.

The plot is multilayered with many different people acting criminally. Al Capone has more of a part in this novel than he has in the others and I liked how he is worked into the plot. He even looks a bit like the good guy at the end. A coward, but still one who tried to do the right thing. This would make a good book club book and would open many avenues for discussion with the different aspects of criminal behavior. Moose's dad is a good foil to the prisoners and the contrast of bad versus good choices in life takes on meaning not only in the life of a criminal but how it can start at a young age and innocently like in Piper's case. A terrific read.

5 Smileys

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