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Saturday, November 13, 2010

Department of Book Reports: Al Capone & Hellie Jondoe

I have some wonderful YA novels to talk about today. If you have a pre-teen or teen interested in history, these volumes feature great characters and fascinating stories.

Al Capone Shines My Shoes by Gennifer Choldenko ($17.99, Dial Books) Moose and his family live on Alcatraz Island, where his father is a guard. There are other families on the island, almost enough for pick-up baseball games, if the girls agree to play. The kids are not supposed to talk with the inmates, but it's too tempting to them to not try to sneak a peek of Al Capone or one of the other famous gangsters who are locked up and assigned tasks to keep the island running. When Moose's autistic sister get dropped from a special school in San Francisco, he sends a note in the pocket of his dirty shirt, asking Capone's help. When a return note comes back saying "Done." he realizes this favor could get his dad fired from the job they very much rely on. Then, a note arrives asking for a favor from Moose and he must figure out how to get yellow roses for Capone's girlfriend, May without the Warden finding out that Moose has been in touch with the convict. Set in a time when autism wasn't well known or spoken of, many people on the island urge the family to send the sister to an institution rather than keep her in the family. Moose has to negotiate the usual rivalries between his friends and the precarious hold his father has on his job.

Al Capone Shines My Shoes is the sequel to the Newberry Honor book Al Capone Does My Shirts ($6.99, Puffin Books), which is in paperback now. These books give a great history lesson in the lives of the people who called Alcatraz home.

Hellie Jondoe by Randall Platt ($16.95, Texas Tech University Press) Hellie (Helena Smith) is an orphan "street Arab" in New York City where she and her brother Harry pick pockets and find food in garbage cans to survive. Harry has signed Hellie to the Orphan Train, taking children to the West to find families. Hellie does not want to leave Harry, but it's getting more difficult to hide her female status from the gang they've pitched in with. When a gunfight leaves Harry apparently dead from a bullet wound, Hellie reluctantly embarks on the train. It's on this train trip she meets A.B.E. Collier, a woman (!) photographer, herself a former Orphan Train child who is documenting the journey to sell to Mr. Hearst. Hellie, half-blind Lizzie, and an infant with a club foot are finally adopted by the domineering Mrs. Gorence, to work on the Hidden Hills Ranch in far away Oregon. Assigned to live in the wash house, and not the home, they come to realize their true fate, they had been sold to the Orphan Train and indentured for 3 years. Harry has actually left the hospital with a new trade, selling the Morphine he was introduced to and now has enough money to try and rescue Hellie. His encounter with A.B.E. Collier exposes him to the Spanish Flu that is sweeping the country and he unwittingly carries it to Pendleton and the Hidden Hills. Nursing her brother, herself and the farm cook back to health, Hellie learns some truths about her birth family and her newly formed family.
Platt has used period slang to great effect here and provides a Glossary at the end.

These books are available at Jackson Street Books and other fine Independent bookstores.As always, books ordered here will have a freebie publishers Advance Reading Copy included as a thank you to our blogosphere friends.


  1. Re: the story of Capone getting a return favour from Moose -- it's insidious how inmates manipulate prison staff. Let me illustrate with a tale from my life.

    During the late 1990s, I would fill in as a nurse at a state prison on the Gulf Coast of Florida where all the suicidal, mentally ill and HIV-infected murderers, rapists and thieves were sent. One of my duties was to man the med window, where prisoners would be sent at appointed times to pick up their anti-retrovirals, heart pills and the vast quantities of brain-numbing psych drugs that kept them from wigging out and killing each other.

    There was one fellow, a jive-talking black drug-dealer from the Miami area, who had more verve than the hostile or borderline retarded mooks that shuffled in for their prescriptions. He came to the window a few times and said "Pardon me, do you have any Grey Poupon?" You remember the TV commercials with the two Pommy gents in Rolls Royces, eh?

    Now, Mrs. Bukko is a condiment maniac. We have five different types of mustard open in the refrigerator now, and a half-dozen on the pantry shelves. And don't get me started on the vinegars -- I lost count after Bottle #14. At the time this priz was making his joke, one of our bottles happened to be a 1-kilo ceramic container of Dijon moutarde imported from France, with a huge cork stopper and colourful glaze finish. (Say what you will about the cowardly Frenchies, they know how to make tasty food. Gives them strength to run away faster, I think.)

    To return the joke, I packed this massive mustard jar in with my work dinner one day. When the jivey dealer got to the window, I told him "Yes, I do have some Grey Poupon" and flashed him the jar. His eyes got wide. I told him I'd spoon some into one of the plastic medicine cups which we used to dole out the Sinequan, a liquid brain-zapping tranquilizer. He snuck up after the med pass and I gave him the stuff. Payment for his humour.

    The next day as I waited to be cleared through the control gates, I overheard two of the guards saying "They caught So-and-so (insert the inmate's name here) with contraband last night. He put up a fight, but we've got him in the lock-down building now." I started sweating. "Oh crap, he got busted with the mustard, and he'll rat me out and I'll be stripped of my nursing license for violating the rules against dealing with the prisoners. Maybe they won't let me leave!"

    I made some discreet inquiries and discovered they guy had been holding some garden-variety illegal narcotics. It wasn't my mustard that indicted him after all. When I went from cell to cell delivering drugs to the miscreants who had lost their yard privileges, I told the guy "No more Grey Poupon, huh?" and he nodded ruefully. I had lucked out; he hadn't.

    Moral of the story? Never do anything nice for a con. They're animals, and it will always blow up in your face. Or get mustard on your nice white nursing jacket.

  2. I love your stories, Bukko!

  3. Thank you. Some of them are even true, like the one above. I spend much of my life trying to do things that will result in wild stories. Counteracts for me being such a boring person. In truth, my life and stories are no more interesting than everyone else's. I just know how to dramatize things better.


We'll try dumping haloscan and see how it works.