Al Capone Does My Homework
(2013), a novel for young adults by American author Gennifer Choldenko, is narrated by thirteen-year-old Moose Flanagan, who lives in San Francisco and whose father works as a warden at Alcatraz Prison. Moose juggles his responsibilities at school with his commitment to take care of his sister, act as a moral compass for his friends, and watch out for his father’s safety. His efforts inevitably fail, teaching him that no one can save the world alone, nor should one feel guilty for having tried. The novel deals with the dark realities of the American carceral state and urban crime, showing how they extend far beyond the bounds of courthouses and prisons.
At the beginning of the novel, Moose’s father has just accepted a job offer to work at Alcatraz as an assistant warden. During his first day on the job, an inmate spits on him as Moose watches. The head warden’s daughter, Piper, tells him that the inmates have an ongoing game based on a scoring system for harassing the prison staff. Moose, worried that the inmates will take their game to the extreme and end up hurting his father, refuses to believe there is nothing he can do about it. Meanwhile, his older sister, Natalie, struggles socially and with a cognitive disorder.
The evening after his father’s first shift, Moose’s parents go out for dinner to celebrate, leaving Moose and Natalie home alone. Moose wakes up in the middle of the night to heat and the smell of smoke and realizes their apartment is ablaze. He and Nat escape, but the apartment is destroyed. Moose is hard on himself for not noticing the fire; he feels that he somehow could have predicted it, or prevented it by being more responsible and saying awake. Their neighbors in the apartment complex suggest that Nat must have set the place on fire just because she is different.
Moose resolves to prove that Nat had nothing to do with the fire, recruiting some friends to help him investigate. They aren’t able to find enough evidence to support any claim; however, as they investigate, they pick up on a series of strange events around Alcatraz Island. They observe a man cheating at a low-stakes poker game, and later hear that he is indebted to ruthless loan sharks. Later, they see an Alcatraz inmate manage to post a cryptic message outside the prison walls.
A few days later, Piper comes into possession of a large sum of money. She spends it on frivolous purchases, including gifts and tips to friends who do her bidding. Piper divulges the source of her income to Moose and their friend Annie: she has been using counterfeit money that was smuggled through San Francisco’s black market. The trio finds an article in the newspaper about an increase in reports of counterfeit money being used throughout San Francisco. Moose convinces Piper to come clean to her father. The warden investigates further, finding that his own inmates have been obtaining the fake cash from somewhere and using Piper as their mechanism for spreading it throughout the city.
One day, while Moose’s father is at the prison, an inmate stabs him with a stolen butcher knife. Seeing the inmate attack his father, Moose hurls a baseball bat at him, incapacitating him for long enough for his father to get away. Later, he guilts himself for being too scared to prevent the violence earlier. His friends comfort him, assuring him that he did, indeed, protect his father. Moose slowly comes around, but still harbors guilt for his inability to control the inmates. As his father recovers in the hospital, Nat expresses a desire to visit him. Moose is not old enough to visit, so he cannot help Nat sign in at the front desk. Moose explains to his sister how to get to their father’s room, but fears that Nat will not make it past reception, since she is unable to sustain eye contact. To the whole family’s surprise, Nat successfully makes eye contact and signs in. They all congratulate her for her valiant effort.
At the end of the novel, the police finish investigating the apartment fire. They conclude that a local man named Donny set the fire, absolving Nat from any connection. Moose finally expresses his feelings of guilt to his father. In response, his father emphasizes that the fire was not Moose’s fault and that no one expected Moose to stay awake while babysitting Nat all night. Moose finally realizes that he is not responsible for every aspect of the world around him. His father recovers swiftly from his injury. With a more communicative and positive family dynamic than ever before, Moose, Nat, and their parents look toward their futures together.