Alcatraz and Al Capone
Alcatraz, the setting of Choldenko's novel, is as vivid and interesting as her characters. She got to know its layout, the way the sun looks on the sea around it, its birds and its weather while working there for a year as a docent.
Most famous as the site of a federal prison, Alcatraz Island was first a military fortress, home to the first lighthouse on the Pacific Coast in the mid 1850's, and a military prison for prisoners of the Civil and Spanish American Wars. After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, hundreds of civilian prisoners were transferred to Alcatraz. By the 1920's the three-story prison was nearly at full capacity. Ownership shifted from the Army to the Department of Justice in 1934, and work began to outfit the prison with maximum-security enhancements. In 1963, the prison was shut down due to structural deterioration and excessive operational costs. The island remained essentially abandoned until 1969 when a large group of about 100 Native Americans from numerous tribes occupied the island for the next 18 months in what would become the longest prolonged occupation of a federal facility by Native Americans to this very day. The occupation fueled the rise of modern Native American activism, and brought Indian rights issues to the attention of the federal government and American public. In 1972, Alcatraz was declared a National Park, and is today considered an ecological preserve and bird sanctuary. For more history visit alcatrazhistory.com.
Al Capone is the mysterious and charismatic figure at the center of the novel - secured and hidden deep inside the prison, the island's kids feel his powerful presence, and his influence extends across the water into San Francisco.
America's most famous gangster, Capone was born in 1899 in Brooklyn. A gang member, bartender and bouncer, he earned the nickname "Scarface" after being attacked by the brother of a female patron whom he'd offended. In Chicago, Capone moved from bootlegging to gambling, prostitution, horse racing, nightclubs and distilleries and is said to have earned $100,000,000 a year. Capone is famous for organizing the St. Valentine's Day Massacre during which his hit men dressed as policemen and fooled their victims into dropping their guns. Although Capone was violent and volatile, he was known to be loyal and at times generous. Capone opened the first soup kitchens after the stock market crash of 1929. Capone was indicted for tax evasion in 1931 and went to prison in Atlanta, where he soon controlled the guards and converted his cell into a luxurious apartment. He was transferred to Alcatraz in 1934, where he was, as Choldenko describes him, a cooperative prisoner. He was transferred again in 1938 to Terminal Island Prison, to serve out the remainder of his sentence, and was released in 1939. He died in his Palm Beach Mansion in 1947 from complications of syphilis.
This article is from the October 21, 2009 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.
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