Themes

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Last Updated on June 23, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 763

Some of the major themes developed in Al Capone Does My Shirts include autism, family, responsibility, and imprisonment.

Autism, which is “a disease that affects the way [an individual’s] brain and sensory system work,” was not specifically identified until 1943. In 1935, the year in which the story takes place, children who...

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Some of the major themes developed in Al Capone Does My Shirts include autism, family, responsibility, and imprisonment.

Autism, which is “a disease that affects the way [an individual’s] brain and sensory system work,” was not specifically identified until 1943. In 1935, the year in which the story takes place, children who exhibited its characteristic symptoms were given a variety of diagnoses and were frequently institutionalized. The term autism encompasses a wide range of manifestations. Natalie has idiosyncratic mannerisms, problems in relating to people, and the speech patterns of a preschooler but is nothing short of a prodigy when it comes to numerical calculations, so she would most likely be identified as autistic today. The best description of Natalie's condition is paradoxically provided in the book by a seven year old, Theresa Mattaman. Theresa says:

Natalie lives in her own world...sometimes it's a good world and sometimes it's a bad world. And sometimes she can get out and sometimes she can’t.

At her best, Natalie is “present” to what is going on around her and communicates with rudimentary words and phrases that are purposeful and not just rote reproductions of what other people say. At her worst, she is withdrawn and unreachable, entering into a state of catatonic unresponsiveness when the elements in her world overwhelm her. Through Natalie, the author communicates with remarkable clarity that the more extreme behaviors of autistic children are not primarily disciplinary issues but are the result of altered sensitivities that can spiral out of control. On the day before her second interview at the Esther P. Marinoff School, Natalie engages in a poignant struggle not to “leave” as “the forces inside her seem to collide.” Although on this occasion she manages, with Moose’s help, to redirect her attention and avoid a complete meltdown, a few days earlier, she had lost herself to a violent, incoherent tantrum. During her fit, Moose could see through her eyes that she was “trapped,” and it was only when he rolled her tightly in a carpet that the turbulence that terrified her subsided. Wrapped securely and protected from her own volatile reactions, she seemed to feel safe and lay “shaking, grateful, and forlorn.”

Autism takes a tremendous toll on families. Beyond the need to arrange for basic custodial care corresponding to the severity of the affliction, parents must wade through myriad treatment options that are variable and largely unproven. The search for an effective intervention, as is shown by the experience of the Flanagan family, requires tremendous commitment and expense, and even today there are no guarantees for success. In the process, Moose is robbed of his childhood, and his mother is literally driven to the brink of insanity.

Responsibility is another theme that this book examines closely. Almost all of the children in the narrative are required to take on a good deal of responsibility. Moose’s schoolmate Scout understands that Moose has to watch his sister after school because he has to take care of his three younger siblings. Even little Theresa is required to stay home and help her mother when her baby brother, Rocky, is born. Moose’s responsibilities far outweigh those placed on his contemporaries, and at times they border on the unreasonable. He sometimes feels as if he must be “responsible for everyone else in the world.” Interestingly, the only child in the story who appears to have few or no responsibilities (other than making good grades in school) is the warden’s daughter, Piper. This conveys a message about the value of having responsibilities in that, of all the children, Piper is the one who is self-centered, manipulative, and universally recognized as “trouble.”

Imprisonment is a theme closely tied to the setting of the story. Alcatraz is a maximum-security prison that houses the most notorious criminals of the day, but in the context of the narrative, imprisonment takes other forms as well. Moose often feels imprisoned by an overload of responsibility. Natalie is imprisoned in a body whose sensory perceptions are flawed; she frequently finds herself “trapped” by overpowering input and obsessions. An individual’s character is measured by their response to imprisonment—Natalie attains a certain nobility in her efforts to remain “present,” fighting the forces that result in her withdrawal; 105, the criminal who befriends her, appears to have been rehabilitated during his time behind bars and is close to being released. Despite small moments of rebellion, Moose grows as a result of his imprisonment by responsibility and emerges as a young man with uncommon insight and a great capacity for love.

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