Last Updated on June 23, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1686
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...
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- Critical Essays
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 “to keep her company wherever she’s gone” until Mrs. Flanagan comes home from the city. Moose’s mom orders him to get rid of his friends, whom she feels are making a “spectacle” of Natalie, even though he tries to tell her “it’s not like that.” Moose’s father comes and carries Natalie home, and, after putting her to bed, says, “I don’t know how much longer she can take this.” Moose does not know if he is talking about Natalie or his mom.
During February and March, Natalie does not have a single fit and “seems easier and more present.” At school, Moose is paired with Scout on a project, and their friendship resumes as if nothing ever happened to interrupt it. Scout has heard that when the prisoners on Alcatraz play baseball in the recreation yard, a ball will sometimes go over the wall, and the children who find it get to keep it. Scout wants Moose to get him a “convict baseball.”
Natalie continues to progress with Mrs. Kelly. Moose takes her with him every day when he goes to search for a convict baseball for Scout, leaving her alone on the side of the hill to make patterns with her precious buttons while he searches in the bushes, trying to find a prize. Moose is at first reluctant to leave Natalie, but she is always there when he comes back, so he ceases to worry. The only thing that mystifies him is that upon his return she insists on repeating the number 105. One day, when Moose comes back after a shorter time than usual, he finds Natalie sitting on a rock with a young convict with greasy hair and a missing front tooth. He and Natalie are holding hands, and both of them are smiling. When the con sees Moose, he calls to him and offers him a baseball, but Moose shouts at him, “Get away from...my sister.” The con gives the ball to Natalie instead, tells her “’Bye, Sweetie,” and quickly walks away. Stamped on the back of his shirt is the number 105.
Haunted by the vision of his autistic sister “holding hands with a grown man,” Moose tries to tell his parents that it is dangerous for him to take her out wherever he goes and that a convict has noticed her. Surprisingly, his parents are not overly concerned, and his mother, emphasizing her daughter’s progress, makes it clear that she has no intention of changing “one single thing about Natalie’s day.” Things are more complicated than Moose’s mom seems to think they are, but Moose cannot tell her the whole story. To keep Natalie safe, he begins to keep her inside while his mother is gone, but Mrs. Flanagan senses that he is letting his sister spend her time absorbed in her button collection against Mrs. Kelly’s advice, so she takes the buttons to work with her one day. Natalie, at a loss, begins “rocking wildly,” screaming for her buttons and for 105. Throwing herself in a frenzy on the floor, Natalie begins “losing herself,” terrifying both herself and Moose. Remembering what his mother does in these situations, Moose pins Natalie on the rug and rolls her in it; somehow, the tightness makes her feel secure, and she becomes calm. When he releases her, Natalie, who never uses pronouns, laboriously manages to say, “I want to go outside.” Moose, amazed, takes her to the swings, where she falls asleep while he pushes her.
Natalie’s birthday is the day before her critical second interview at Esther P. Marinoff. Mrs. Flanagan has instructed Moose to keep his sister calm no matter what. Natalie is content, drawing moons on a piece of paper, but then she becomes frustrated and the “forces inside her seem to collide.” Moose notes that “her eyes are leaving.” In a frantic effort to divert her attention, he opens the door and calls her; valiantly fighting against losing control, Natalie follows Moose. After a while, she heads off on her own toward the place where she meets 105, and Moose cannot stop her. The convict is there. He sees Natalie, calls gently to her, and takes her hand. Moose looks on, watching his sister “holding hands with a man not much older than she is,” and sees that what is “so strange, so awful" is at the same time "so...normal...terrible...good.”
When Moose and Natalie arrive home, Mrs. Flanagan has a cake ready with the number ten on it, and the island children celebrate Natalie’s birthday. Afterward, Moose tells his mother that everyone can see that Natalie is not ten and that the only chance she has at Esther P. Marinoff is if they tell the truth. Moose’s mom objects, but for once his dad sides with him. Mr. Flanagan goes to Natalie and asks her how old she is, and she responds, “I am sixteen at 2:31 today.”
Natalie does well at her interview but is rejected anyway. Seeing his mother’s devastation, Moose decides that they need the help of someone with power. In desperation, he enlists Piper’s aid in getting a letter to the most influential individual he knows, Al Capone. School ends. One day, out of the blue, the director at Esther P. Marinoff calls to tell the Flanagans that he has decided to open another branch of the school for older girls and that Natalie will be the first student. No one has any idea why the director has had this sudden change of heart except Moose. His suspicions are confirmed when he puts on a clean shirt from the Alcatraz Laundry the next morning and finds a scrap of paper stuffed in the sleeve with a simple message: “Done.”