Book of the Week - Al Capone Does My Shirts

Al Capone Does my Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko

Recently, there has been a certain amount of push to identify and create autistic characters? This may be due to the growing awareness of autism and its less severe form of Asperger'ssyndrome. I admit, having an Aspie (Asperger's) brother, it drove my thesis on disabilities and controls how I think when I read and reflect on autistic characters in fiction. It should be no surprise that with increased awareness would come a wave of fascination with neurological conditions in literature.

It's easy to see the appeal, the thing that is drawing writers and storytellers. Even those with mild forms of autism can have difficulty expressing themselves, communicating, and acting in a way that would be considered "normal" by society. In essence, they are ripe for the plucking in creating a metaphorical character, one that could mirror ourselves and society.

That is the case with the character of Natalie in Gennifer Choldenkos, Al Capone Does My Shirts. The story centers around the Flanagan family: mother, father, Natalie, and twelve-year-old Moose. The whose family just moved to Alcatraz Island in 1930, where their father works around the clock so that sixteen-year-old Natalie may attend a prestigious and expensive school, one of the first of its kind, that can help children like Natalie. Although they have no label for her condition, today she would be considered as autistic.

Moose Flanagan's view of life depicts the struggle between loving someone and wanting them to go away. He loves his sister, but the way he is complications his life in a way that most twelve-year-olds do not have to deal with. Moose loves this rich setting of Alcatraz, but is lonely as the "okay" sibling. Eventually, it is up to Moose to help Natalie in the way that only a brother and a place called Alcatraz can.

As a book that includes disability, it is not so great. Good for Ms. Choldenko for not having labels, but I'm afraid that Natalie is too much of a metaphor, too much of a stereotype for my liking. For example, Natalie is a math whiz, much like a certain Rainman I recall. She has a collection of buttons because every autistic person collects something, and it has to be something odd but easily obtainable. Baseball cards in the Rainman's case, buttons for Natalie. The most "growing" Natalie does it to learn a limited use of pronouns, the only indication we receive that Natalie may be able to grow and change with help. In the end, Natalie is really afflicted with a serious case of metaphorism - she's a prisoner of her own body - a thematic link to the uniqueness of the island prison and its infamous inhabitants. Honestly though, the family could live in a lighthouse in Maine, or a ranch in Texas, for the the impact the setting has on the action of the story.

Which leads me to a deeper question about autism in fiction. Should writers be held to account for putting a metaphorical spin on a disorder that affects so many real people? Real people's whose lives are anything but a metaphor. And if we use disability or any illness as a metaphor is this any better than Secret Garden in which Colin's illness is a metaphor of his father and who, once things are better in his life, miraculously becomes well? Or Clara in Heidi who starts walking with just a little encouragement from the non-disabled? I think I would rather have a character like Melody from Out of my Mind who is who she is, not a metaphor for someoneelse's life.