Matthew Flanagan – otherwise known as Moose – has just moved to Alcatraz Island during the Depression. It’s not that he’s a criminal, he’s only twelve after all, but rather because his father has a new job as a guard at the notorious prison. The family has specifically moved to the area so that Moose’s sister Natalie can go to a special school nearby. His mother is confident, optimistic, convinced that this school will be the best they have tried. She insists that her daughter is ten. Moose, on the other hand, knows that his sister is sixteen. It’s starting to get harder to hide the fact that she is much older than she acts.
Moose is lonely and upset about having to leave his friends and his baseball team. There aren’t enough kids on the island to play ball. The only other boy is a little kid. To make matters worse, the only other kid his age, Piper, the warden’s daughter, is a spitfire filled with trouble. She always has elaborate plans and schemes that Moose can’t help getting sucked into.
Gennifer Choldenko won a Newbery Honor Award for Al Capone Does My Shirts, and it is easy to see why. The characters are very well-rounded and true to life. The relationships between various family member’s in Moose’s household are particularly well-developed. Although Natalie is never identified as autistic within the novel (partly because the diagnosis did not exist in 1935), but the author’s afterword explains that she was inspired by her own sister. That did not surprise me, as the depiction of Natalie’s character seemed extremely realistic, as did Moose’s complicated relationship with his sister.