It’s rare that a novel for children can have me holding my breath almost as much as I would when reading a John Grisham novel, but this book gave me a few such moments. It makes the word “autism” take on flesh in the form of sixteen-year-old Natalie, who’d been ten for several years when this book begins.
Natalie lives with her mother, father, and twelve-year-old brother Moose on Alcatraz Island when it was still a prison. Her father works for the prison. Her mother is obsessed with getting her into a school that can help her function in life. The community consists of other prison families. Moose gets off the island every day to go to school. But most afternoons when he comes home, he is responsible for Natalie’s care, and his parents think it will help Natalie if Moose takes her with him wherever he goes each afternoon. They tried to send her to the Esther P. Marinoff School, but the school sent her home after one day, which absolutely crushed her mother’s spirits.
Everyone on the island, especially the children, fear the prision warden, who has the power to fire their fathers. His daughter, Piper, uses this fear to manipulate the other island children. Two of the warden’s rules are especially relevant in this book:
1. Don’t talk about the inmates, especially Al Capone, to those on the outside, because the warden does not want reporters bugging him all the time about any famous inmates.
2. Don’t talk to the prisoners and if you are female, dress modestly at all times — no bathing suits allowed.
Piper is probably the worst offender of the first rule, even trying to get children at school to pay to have their clothes put in with the prison families’ laundry so they can be processed by Al Capone himself. She tries to get Moose to help with this, but he refuses. Nevertheless, the children are caught and Moose happens to be with them when Piper is handing out the money to the participants because she has asked him
to bring Natalie to help divide the sum collected for distribution. (She is a whiz at math.) Like the other children, Moose is called to see the warden (rather like being sent to the principal’s office), and and all four children involved are threatened with having their fathers fired if anything like this ever happens again. The warden even sends his daughter Piper to live in San Francisco with her grandmother for two
months to punish her for her part in the scheme.
It’s the violation of the second rule, however, that brings about the climax of the book. On the first day of school Moose makes one friend — Scout — who includes him in the baseball game after school. But when Moose has to miss a game that was rescheduled for him because his mother’s schedule suddenly changed and he had to watch Natalie, Scout drops him. To try and get back into Scout’s good graces, Moose
is determined to find one of the baseballs the prisoners have hit over the fence. Piper has told Scout they are easy to find and are hit outside all the time. Scout wants one.
Naturally, when Moose goes to find a baseball, Natalie has to come along. This not only leads to Natalie breaking the second rule, but it also scares Moose to death knowing that Natalie has been alone and holding hands with one of the inmates who was allowed outside the walls for gardening work. Moose had left her for a few minutes out of sight while he was hunting the ball. When he finds Natalie, she gives
him a ball. And he finally realizes that #105 gave it to her. And he has no idea what else might have happened. Now he finally is as determined as his mom to get Natalie to the Esther P. Marinoff School, just to get her off the island before something tragic happens. I won’t say much more about the plot, since I hope you will read the book.
The meat of this book for me was watching Moose relate to his sister Natalie. His mother had said to treat her like he would a normal sister, but she wasn’t normal and everyone on the island knew it. She liked to sit and arrange buttons and mostly tune out everything else. She liked to eat lemon cake. Sometimes her eyes would get vacant and she’d disappear into herself. And sometimes when she was upset she would throw a fit, scream, curl up into a ball, or just sit and rock. She loved numbers and would sometimes answer questions that involved numbers better than anyone else could. Moose was good with her and probably spent more time with her than anyone else.
After the incident of Natalie’s interaction with #105, Moose has to tell his parents what happened because he is afraid for Nat’s safety. It would appear she wants to meet #105 again. Mooses knows his mother will have to stop pretending Nat is still ten instead of 16 and take proper precautions. In a last ditch attempt to help get Nat off
the island, Moose finally finds a way to enlist the help of Al Capone himself, with Piper’s help.
Please read the book. If you know of a family with an autistic child, be sure and let them know about the book — especially if there are other older children in the family. It is readily available in most libraries.