Friday, February 28, 2014

Funny Money on the Rock: Al Capone Does My Homework by Gennifer Choldenko

No one ever believes I live on Alcatraz. Even my eighth-grade history teacher made me write on the chalkboard "I do not live on Alcatraz" two hundred times. She didn't even apologize when she found out I wasn't lying.

My father had trouble getting his driver's license. They thought he was an escaped prisoner too stupid to fake his address instead of an officer at the most notorious prison in North America.

My friend Annie was kicked out of Sunday school for saying she lived on Alcatraz.

Moose Flanagan is worried. He's used to living on Alcatraz Island, a stone's, or in Moose's case, a baseball's throw, from the Big House, with convicts (even Al "Scarface" Capone) doing their laundry and trustees making repairs in their apartment in Building 64. But when his dad is appointed Associate Warden. Moose has more to worry about than usual. His autistic sister Natalie is now sixteen and in some ways harder to manage than ever, but his main worry is about his father's promotion.

Officer Darby Trixle clearly is angry about being passed over for the job, and his wife, always critical of Natalie's presence, seems to be on a mission to find fault with all of them. And then Piper, the Warden's pretty but pretentious daughter, shows him the cons' point system, found in the kitchen.


Now Mouse has to worry about his dad, too. And then, while sitting with the sleeping Natalie, Mouse drops off to sleep and awakens to find the apartment ablaze. He gets his sister out safely, but most of his stuff, including his history report on President Roosevelt, is gone. And while the family relocates while the cons repair their apartment, other strange events seem to be happening. Mouse finds some bills mysteriously left in the laundry, Piper shows him an expensive cashmere sweater "from her secret admirer," and other people find "gifts" and mysterious bills, tens and twenties, left without a clue. To make matters worse, Mouse's teacher says he has to redo his homework, but even worse, Mrs. Trixle starts a whispering campaign to convince the other residents that Natalie started the fire and that she is a danger to everyone on Alcatraz. Then Mouse finds his history folder suddenly returned to the apartment, with a penciled addition written by Capone himself, a cryptic warning that ends with "It's a state affair."

Mouse and his friend Annie realize that to protect Natalie from being sent away to a residential school, they must discover the identity of the real arsonist, and to do so they must trust Piper, who knows most of what goes on on the Rock. Gradually, they begin to see that the mysterious money is somehow at the root of the mystery.

Then his father is knifed by a convict nicknamed "Indiana," and Mouse realizes what Capone's warning must have meant.

Gennifer Choldenko's third and final book in her series, Al Capone Does My Homework (Dial Books, 2013), has all the qualities--a main character who feels responsible for everything, a mystery set on Alcatraz Island in the 1930s with a cast of believable, colorful, and sometimes murderous characters, among them  Capone, who seems to have taken a shine to Mouse, and a coming-of-age story with all the feelings of a thirteen-year-old protagonist--that earned her first book, Al Capone Does My Shirts its Newbery Honor Medal, and her second book, Al Capone Shines My Shoes rave reviews. This final book in the trilogy is exciting and yet satisfying, with a sense of completion for readers, but also with a sense of regret that the story of Mouse Flanagan has come to an end.  Choldenko spent ten years of her life researching and writing this series, and we can only hope she finds another subject so engaging.

Kirkus Reviews caps it well, saying "A satisfying finale to what has become a cornerstone series in contemporary children's literature."

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