Twelve-year-old Moose Flanagan is not happy about his family’s move to Alcatraz Island in January 1935. His father has secured a job at the prison and his sister Natalie, who has what in the future would be identified as autism, will be able to attend the renowned Esther P. Marinoff School in San Francisco. Natalie cannot interact properly with others but has an otherworldly facility with numbers and patterns. Although Moose loves his sister, people often do not understand about her, which makes it difficult for him to make new friends. He does not look forward to starting at a new school where he does not know anyone
Moose is watching Natalie one afternoon when little Theresa Mattaman comes to the door and offers to show them around the island. Theresa excitedly tells Moose and Natalie about the famous criminals who are housed there, especially Al Capone. At the morgue, they meet Piper Williams, the warden’s daughter. Piper is attractive and abrasive, and Moose can tell that she is trouble.
The next morning, the Flanagans take Natalie to her new school. They leave her there, screaming, and on the way home, Moose wonders if sending Natalie away is a good thing or just another of his mother’s “crazy ideas.” Back on the island, the warden acquaints Moose with the rules of life on Alcatraz and tells him that he will be expected to help Piper, “a straight-A student,” carry her “projects and whatnot” to school every day. Moose learns that Piper, who is not the perfect angel her father believes her to be, has a scheme to make money by charging their classmates a nickel to have items of clothing laundered by the famous criminals on Alcatraz. Piper solicits Moose’s help, but Moose remembers the warden’s rules and refuses. At school, Moose is befriended by a boy named Scout who invites him to play baseball on Mondays.
The Flanagans receive a call from the director of the Esther P. Marinoff School, who tells them that Natalie has not been able to adjust and that they must come for her immediately. The Flanagans are referred to Mrs. Kelly, a woman who might be able to work with Natalie. After consulting with Mrs. Kelly, Moose’s mom states that while she gives piano lessons in the city in the afternoons, Moose, in the interest of helping his sister “join the human race,” will be expected to take Natalie everywhere with him after school as if she were “a normal sister.” Moose pleads with his mother to let him have Mondays off so he can play baseball, but she tells him to ask his friends to move the games to Tuesdays, when she does not have lessons scheduled. To Moose’s surprise, Scout is able to reschedule the games. But Moose’s mother’s Monday lesson is switched to Tuesdays. When Moose tells Scout that he cannot play on Tuesdays now either, Scout gets angry and tells Moose, “Don’t expect to play on my team again.”
Meanwhile, Piper, with the help of two of the other island kids, has brought the convict-cleaned laundry back to school. Although he did get talked into playing up the excitement of living with notorious criminals to get his classmates to take part in Piper’s scheme, Moose has otherwise managed to remain uninvolved with the project. When Piper returns the laundered items to her classmates, they are disgruntled because there is nothing special about them. One student, Del, is irate and demands his money back, but Piper is unyielding. Two days later, the children are called before the warden, who has received a letter from Del’s mother complaining about his daughter’s shenanigans. Ignoring Moose’s protests that he did not do anything, the warden reprimands all the children except the real culprit, Piper, and tells them that if they step out of line one more time, their parents will lose their jobs. After the meeting, the children go to the dock, where Natalie arranges buttons into a grid in the dirt. Disconsolately kicking around an old can, Moose accidentally destroys Natalie’s intricate work, and she completely shuts down, curling into a tight ball on the ground. Moose and the others do not know what to do, so they sit with her...
(The entire section is 1686 words.)