The Rock and a hard case

6th August 2004 at 01:00
Jan Mark enjoys the tale of Moose, his autistic sister and the Mob

Al Capone Does My Shirts By Gennifer Choldenko Bloomsbury pound;5.99

Moose Flanagan lives on Alcatraz. "The convicts we have are the kind other prisons don't want. You get to Alcatraz by being the worst of the worst.

Unless you're me. I came here because my mother said I had to."

In fact, the whole Flanagan family is on the Rock, where Moose's father doubles as electrician and guard, because of its proximity to a San Francisco school for children with behavioural and developmental problems.

Moose's whole life has been subverted by his mother's desperate attempts to find a school that will accept his sister Natalie, although contemporary opinion maintains that it would be kindest to put her in an asylum.

This is 1935; Al Capone works in the prison laundry, the Golden Gate Bridge is still under construction, and autism will not be a recognised condition for another eight years. Natalie's case is a severe one that has turned the family in upon itself, but there are other children living on the island, ferried across the bay to school, where they trade on the questionable glamour of their situation.

Moose begins to take a kind of perverse pride in being "the Alcatraz guy" and it is his edgy friendship with the warden's manipulative daughter that finally puts him in a position to ask a favour from the island's most notorious con, winning Natalie a place in the school of their mother's dreams.

Capone may have been generally vile, but he was capable of acts of great generosity, as Choldenko explains in her excellent notes on the historical background to the story. Just how - and how hard - Scarface leans on the school principal we are not told, but Moose gets his happy ending in the most satisfying way. The jacket does this fine book no favours; do not be put off by it.

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