Moose Flanagan is back, and you don’t have to have read “Al Capone Does My Shirts,” Gennifer Choldenko’s Newbery Honor-winning first book, to appreciate the sequel, Al Capone Shines My Shoes. This second book about Moose and his hapless adventures on Alcatraz Island may be even more fun than the first.
It’s the summer of 1935 and all is not well for a 12-year-old boy whose toilet is regularly unstopped by an ax murderer aka Seven Fingers. Seven Fingers is the plumber for the families living on Alcatraz, where Moose’s father works as a prison guard and Al Capone still does laundry, ably assisted by Machine Gun Kelly.
In fact, as fans will remember from “Al Capone Does My Shirts,” Capone probably had a hand in Moose’s sister’s acceptance at the Esther P. Marinoff School. But things didn’t work out as planned for Natalie at the boarding school. Now she’s returned, just as a worrisome new note appears in the family’s laundry. Two words are written on a scrap of paper tucked into Moose’s shirt pocket: “Your turn.”
Told in perfect historical context, the story deftly moves from one exploit to the next. Baseball games continue on the parade grounds. Moose’s friend Jimmy trains flies for his menagerie. Officer Darby Trixle is as ornery and hateful as some of the prisoners he watches. The mean-spirited warden’s daughter Piper again intrigues and infuriates, adding a slight love interest that confounds Moose.
Although “Al Capone Shines My Shoes” is a fast-paced adventure story, the subtle underlying messages are worth hearing. Moose recognizes his ambivalence about his relationship with his sister, who has undiagnosed autism, and he struggles to accept the degree to which she depends on him. Again, as in the first book, strong ties develop among the kids whose parents guard the bank robbers, murderers, and hit men. Living at Alcatraz teaches Moose an important lesson: Friendships are difficult, but worth the effort.
Choldenko’s new novel will be as admired and appreciated as was her earlier story of the kids living on Alcatraz Island. Let’s hope this isn’t the end of Moose Flanagan and his cohorts. After all, they’re the good guys. They’re just growing up in a place where the “most notorious gangster in America” might be shining your shoes one day and filing down metal bars in an escape attempt the next.