3 1/2 Stars
This was a typical book about young teen angst. I love these types of books, and this one received the Newberry Honor medal in 2005, so it is pretty much guaranteed that this is a well-written. It wasn’t as good as I had hoped, however, and most of it seemed to be written just to make the reader uncomfortable. Have you noticed this about books aimed at teens? Every story seems to be a string of annoying situations, one after the other, which the main character (and by extension, the reader) must endure cringingly endure. Now I don’t know about you, but while I remember my teen years being laden with strife and offense, I wasn’t put through anything close to the torture these teen characters put up with. What is really uncomfortable, is how contrived the situations all feel. I’ve read stories that examine troubled children or illuminate horrific abuse, and while each situation is upsetting, jarring even, the truthfulness of the writing does not make it uncomfortable to read. Instead, the reader feels a part of the character’s life, engaging in hardships and rejoicing in triumphs as the character does. These teen-angst novels, on the other hand, serve to illuminate how much the author has forgotten about being a teen, and each situation rings false with the reader. It’s an unfortunate trend, and I’m honestly surprised that the Newberry Board voted for such a book. Perhaps this is a symptom the glaring age gap between the 2005 board members and the Newberry target audience.
Al Capone Does My Shirts did have some nice history involved, though, and the ending was more than satisfactory. (These books always have a happy ending, have you noticed? Everything works out in a sickening sweet sort of way, which is really the only way to balance out the rest of the writing and leave the reader with some sense of having read a good book). The story is about a family who moves to Alcatraz Island during the 1930’s when the father gets a job as a prison guard/electrician. The main character is a 7th grade boy with an autistic older sister, although in those days autism had not yet been diagnosed. This is the time period that Al Capone was imprisoned at Alcatraz, and it was rumored that he ran the laundry. All the families living on the island got their laundry done by the inmates, hence the name of the book. It was a generally sweet book, and the author did her research about the prison and what life was like for the families living there. The last paragraph of the last chapter was especially smile-inducing, and I suspect that the entire book was crafted around those few lines. I liked it, but I probably won’t read it again.