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Last Updated on June 23, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 869

Moose Flanagan, the protagonist of the story, is big for his age and has brown/blonde hair and brown eyes. Moose is a normal seventh grader who loves to play baseball, and although he has an outgoing and witty personality, he worries about making friends at his new school. Moose is unhappy...

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Moose Flanagan, the protagonist of the story, is big for his age and has brown/blonde hair and brown eyes. Moose is a normal seventh grader who loves to play baseball, and although he has an outgoing and witty personality, he worries about making friends at his new school. Moose is unhappy that the Flanagans have moved to Alcatraz Island, but he has learned that, in his family, the needs of his sister, Natalie, come before those of anyone else. Moose longs for attention from his busy father and consideration of any kind from his harried mother, but in practice it seems that he is recognized only for the help that he can provide in meeting his sister’s needs. At the age of twelve, Moose is expected to be the sole caretaker of sixteen-year-old Natalie every day after school. Because of this, it is difficult for him to make friends, and he is forced to give up playing baseball with his hard-won new acquaintances at his school. Oftentimes, Moose is consumed with rage, feeling that “no matter how hard [he] work[s], it's never enough.” To compound his problems, he harbors a deep-seated sense of guilt that he is somehow the cause of his sister's troubles. Despite his frustrations and rightful indignation at the way he is treated, Moose is remarkably dependable and resilient for a child of his age. The expectations placed on him may be unreasonable and unrealistic, but Moose always manages to come through. Moose is intelligent, sensible, and capable of tremendous empathy; he sees his sister as a different but eminently valuable individual; and unlike his mother, he is able to accept and love her as she is.

Natalie, like Moose, has brown/blonde hair, but her eyes are a brilliant green. The particular manifestation of her disability is evident in her mannerisms: “she holds her mouth too open and her shoulders uneven,” and when she is agitated, she has the habit of digging her chin viciously into her collarbone. Natalie has an uncanny understanding of all things having to do with numbers. She can solve complex math problems spontaneously in her head, loves studying the indexes of books, and can spend hours making intricate patterns with buttons or pebbles. Although Natalie is sixteen years old, Mrs. Flanagan, convinced that the limited treatment opportunities available for children like her daughter end at puberty, tells everyone that Natalie is ten. Natalie never smiles, and she rarely looks directly at people. She loves to watch the sun rise every morning and to eat lemon cake. Natalie is prone to screaming tantrums and ordinarily parrots the words of others or speaks in single words or short phrases. Although it is extremely difficult for her, she tries mightily at times to communicate in a normal manner with those around her. It is an especially touching moment in the story when she speaks her first complete sentence using a pronoun: after intense thought and an agonizing struggle to find the right words, she tells Moose earnestly, “I want to go outside.” Although she has great trouble interacting with others, it is clear that Natalie values her parents and brother, and she often comments on them, referring to them as “Natalie Flanagan’s whole family.” Although she does not often communicate it, she is aware of the feelings of others; when she fails to get into the Esther Marinoff School for the second time, she states flatly, “Mommy is angry.” Natalie has a special affinity for Moose and cries brokenly for hours when he neglects his morning ritual of heralding to her the rising of the sun. Mrs. Kelly notes that when she wants to calm Natalie, she directs her attention to what Moose might be doing at that very moment, and Natalie attends he is important to her.

Mrs. Flanagan is a woman who is teetering on the brink of a breakdown. She is completely focused on finding a remedy that will enable her disabled daughter to live a productive life, but repeated failure has rendered her desperate and emotionally unbalanced. Mrs. Flanagan believes the lie she has created to keep Natalie a child of ten year after year, and she becomes agitated and even violent if anyone speaks the truth about her daughter’s age. Exhausted and discouraged with her own inadequacy in dealing with Natalie, she shifts the responsibility for her care onto the shoulders of her young son. Mrs. Flanagan is so consumed with the needs of her autistic daughter that she openly admits that she does not care for her other child, Moose. Mrs. Flanagan thinks that, in comparison to Natalie, Moose “has everything” and so has no need for her attention and love.

Mr. Flanagan is a well-meaning father who is overwhelmed with the pressures of his job and family. He has sympathy for Moose but only occasionally is able to prevail on his son’s behalf in the face of the irrational demands of his wife. When Moose asks his father why he always submits to the desires of his mother, he responds, “Things matter more to your mother than they do to me.” He seems powerless before the force of her will.

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Critical Essays