Moose Flannigan is NOT happy about his father’s new job. His father is a guard and an electrician at the most notorious prison in the country, especially in 1935: Alcatraz. And, because it’s 1935, that means the family gets to come along, too. Which means Moose has to leave his friends and start over.
All this is complicated by his sister Natalie’s condition. With today’s knowledge, she’d be diagnosed with autism. In the book — and I give Choldenko so much credit for making it seem as it probably really was, which was alternately quite revealing and very painful — she’s just got a “condition,” something that needs to be “cured.” Moose and Natalie’s mother is the hardest character to stomach: she can’t deal with Natalie, pretending she is 10 for years, because younger children have more of a “chance” and because she just can’t deal with the fact that her child is not “normal.” That I cringed every time she began to speak is a testament to how well Choldenko wrote her.
While autism, as well as Natalie’s acceptance to a special school in San Francisco, plays a major role in the book, it isn’t the basis of the plot. When Moose isn’t struggling with his feelings about, or taking care of his sister, he is trying to figure out how to deal with the kids on the island — especially Piper (whom I wanted to smack!), the daughter of the warden, and who has it in her head that she can get away with just about everything — and trying to make friends at a new school, which is never easy. Choldenko gets middle grade awkwardness down pat, from Moose’s reluctance to make waves to Piper’s bossiness. I also felt that she caught the time period; it felt like the 1930s, or at least what I imagine the 1930s to feel like.
Oh, and the ending: perfect.
Which makes me wonder what she’s done with Moose, Natalie and the island in the sequel. Something interesting, I hope.