Al Capone Does My Shirts: Critical Review
Newbery Honored book, Al Capone Does My Shirts is about a twelve-year-old boy named Moose Flannagan who moves to Alcatraz with his family and the struggles he faces as he comes of age. Considering the setting of the story and the situation Moose’s family was in, Choldenko could have easily focused solely on what life was like living on Alcatraz and still have a good book. Instead, Choldenko used subtle details to make readers more aware of what life was like outside of Alcatraz to add authenticity to the story.
There are certain events that happen that when they happen—no matter how old the person is—everyone in the country is going to be aware of to some degree. In 1935, one of these events was the great depression. Moose Flannagan, the narrator of Al Capone Does My Shirts, does not directly mention the great depression, but the fact each chapter is dated between January 5 and June 12, 1935 lets the sophisticated reader know aware that the depression was in full-bloom.
For readers not as well versed in American history, there are several hints as to the economic state of America in that time. One example is seen while Moose is worrying over whether the warden knows about his sister, Natalie, and if she’s supposed to be a secret: “There were 237 electricians who applied for the job my dad got. If it were me, I’d have kept my mouth shut about having a daughter like Natalie (page 19).”
This is a great way of simply showing the economic times and the character’s awareness of it. Obviously, Moose and his family are not as concerned about the recession as others, because his father has two jobs, but the family is aware of the financial hardships others face. Instead of blatantly saying, “Because of the Great Depression, my father was lucky to get the job. A lot of people applied,” she drops in the detail subtly, neatly, and lets readers know how bad the economy was at the time. Even if young readers do not realize 237 people for one job is a lot of applicants during a healthy economy, they will recognize that 237 people is a lot of people. They will also know that, with so many applicants, Moose’s father was lucky to have received his job at Alcatraz.
Later in the book, Moose observes a once-common ritual. His father is reading the newspaper: “My father reads Natalie headlines from the newspaper, adding numbers to every one. “Work resumes on the Golden Gate Bridge. 103 men are put back to work, (…) (pg. 23).”
The phrase, “103 men put back to work” lets us know 103 men were out of work and provides another hint about the depression. But Choldenko also provides a new detail of the times in the passage: the building of the Golden Gate Bridge. The word “resume” also lets readers know that people were working on building the bridge, stopped and are starting again.
According to GoldenGateBridge.org, construction on The Golden Gate Bridge “commenced on January 5, 1933 and the Bridge was open to vehicular traffic on May 28, 1937.” It also states that there were ten different contractors working on the Golden Gate Bridge at separate times during those four years. This small detail, especially since the characters live on Alcatraz–near the Golden Gate Bridge—adds a little historical trivia to the period and authenticity to the time.
Gennifer Choldenko adds subtle details not directly related to the story, to add authenticity and expand the reader’s knowledge of the times.