Al Capone Shines My Shoes is the sequel to Choldenko's celebrated Al Capone Does My Shirts. Twelve-year old Moose Flanagan continues his account of life on the Rock and the conflicts and crises that beset the isolated community of cons, guards, mothers and kids who call it home. Moose's voice - so true, so funny, so boyish, so irreverant - will make you want to stand up and applaud Choldenko's bravura encore:
Alcatraz Island is shaped like a wedding cake with three tiers and lots of paths and stairs and switchbacks that lead from one level to the next. The parade ground where we play baseball
makes a pretty good field except for the wind. I can't tell you how irritating it is to hit a good ball and have the wind make it a foul.
Piper flies down the steep switchback on her roller skates, her long hair streaming behind her, her dress flowing back so you can see the outline of her - okay, never mind what you can see.
The romantic and scary island, the soothing and beautiful rhythm of baseball, and the too-delicious Piper (who smells of talc and root beer) are just a few of the powerful forces at work on Moose as he struggles to remain unruffled and do right by his friends, his parents, and his autistic older sister, Natalie. But there is real turbulence under Moose's affable surface, and beneath the prison there are dark and dusty passageways where the children hide to confess their fears or eavesdrop on their parents confessing theirs. The cons live the most public and regulated lives - assembling on the hour to be counted - but as they live and work under the scrutiny of the guards there are dangerous machinations and upsetting communications hidden inside their slightest movements or gestures. The many layers-within-layers of the wedding cake are just one of Choldenko's many triumphs here.
The story opens as Moose finds himself caught between two mysterious and volatile forces, Al Capone and his sister Natalie. Capone is the rock star of the prison population, infamous, charismatic, rich and powerful; Natalie is isolated, deeply vulnerable, emotionally reactive and precariously rigid. Capone, who remains unseen for most of the novel, communicates with Moose via notes tucked into his laundry. Natalie - away attending a special boarding school in San Francisco that Moose and his family know offers her a last chance to learn to control the whirlpool of feeling that threatens to drown her - is always a felt presence to Moose: Is she safe? Is she suffering? Is she happy?
In the first book Capone secretly used his pull to help Natalie find a place at the special school, and the sequel opens with his demand for payback from Moose. Moose's anxiety about what Capone will require, and the need for secrecy (to protect his father), carry the reader along and provide genuine suspense. But Choldenko's greatest achievement is the creation of the inner worlds of her characters: all complicated, turbulent, alive, surprising, sweet and deep.
Readers interested in Al Capone Shines My Shoes may want to start at the beginning with Al Capone Does My Shirts. Even though this one stands alone, readers will likely want to spend more time with Moose. His irresistible voice will draw in even the most reluctant readers, and is a welcome addition to the dearth of fiction attractive to 10-12 year old boys.
This review is from the October 21, 2009 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.
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