Alcatraz! is the fourth book in Dakota Chase’s Repeating History series, which I have been lucky enough to review from the very beginning and feel privileged that Jay has asked me back as a guest reviewer for this story.
Up until this point, we have seen the main characters, Ash and Grant, travel to ancient Egypt, medieval Germany, and to 10,000 years BC. They were both sent to Stanton School for Boys in lieu of prison for their individual crimes, but on their first day, a fight between them in the office of the World History professor, Professor Ambrosius, resulted in a fire and artifacts of great importance were destroyed. Professor Ambrosius revealed himself to the boys as none other than Merlin, the legendary wizard, and Grant and Ash were given a choice: return back in time to retrieve the objects or face jail.
It is in this fourth book that the boys finally get their wish for indoor plumbing, but for the first time since their journeys began, Grant and Ash are separated — Grant as a prison officer and Ash as an inmate. While they both have to figure out how to relieve Public Enemy Number One, Al Capone, of a locket he never takes off, they also have to navigate the notorious Alcatraz prison with its corrupt guards and threatening inmates. Grant and Ash soon discover that indoor plumbing does not mean that their lives will be any easier when time traveling!
As with the other books in the Repeating History series, Chase chooses to tell Alcatraz! using a dual narrative. In my opinion, this is all the more important in this story because Grant and Ash are not together and they are both dealing with their own separate dramas with Ash avoiding a prisoner called Billy Ray who has taken a dislike to him and Grant dealing with unwittingly become the Warden’s snitch. I never find the jump from Ash to Grant’s narrative jarring in Chase’s stories and in Alcatraz! I felt she succeeded in keeping the pace moving at a fast speed because there is no time for our characters to relax.
Ash and Grant have been such rewarding protagonists to follow throughout this series because of their personal growth. In Alcatraz! I felt this was an aspect Chase chose to concentrate on for both boys and the results of this are moving and significant in terms of their character arcs.
Ash’s incarceration appears to make him look inward, considering the mistakes that led him to this point and his own narrow miss with jail back home:
The thought of his mom brought a sudden, completely unexpected ache to his chest and the burn of tears to his eyes . . . He’d pushed her too hard. He’d realized that now, not that he was in any hurry to admit it. When it came down to brass tacks, it was his own damn fault. Three strikes and you’re out. He knew it, yet he still pressed his luck and when he got caught, he was surprised when his parents didn’t bail him out again. Stupid, he knew. He surreptitiously swiped his eyes with his sleeve and smirked to himself. Doing stupid stuff is probably how a lot of these guys ended up in prison. How mature of you to think of that! Mom would be so proud!
Previously, Ash has really been the joker and the one to bicker with Grant. Admittedly, by Mammoth! I had found this bickering between them tedious and I think it was clever of Chase to allow them to be in a situation in this story in which they could separate. Perhaps some of Ash’s vulnerability is because he is alone, or rightfully because he is a seventeen-year-old in a prison full of adult men, but at several points his anxiety and fear, though hidden behind sarcasm, allow the reader an emotional connection we may not have felt with Ash before.
Conversely, whilst Ash examines himself, Grant observes the 1930s world and people around him, becoming increasingly unhappy by what he sees:
Oh my God. Sodomy? These men were in prison just because they had sex with another man? He knew it happened, understood gay rights was a relatively new movement, that LGBTQ people were still fighting for equality and protection under the law in the United States in his own day, but prison? Spencer put them in the same category as murderers and rapists! It didn’t seem possible, yet he knew it was. It was horrifying but true, and it brought the importance of fighting for queer rights home for him, made it real. He had to bite his tongue hard to keep from telling Spencer exactly what he thought of the situation.
Grant’s anger, not just at the treatment of gay men, but women and other prisoners, appears to give him a confidence we have not seen previously and he handles situations in an assured and courageous manner. As someone who has perhaps stood in Ash’s shadow, Grant’s unexpected development is exciting for the reader.
I have always admired Chase’s attention to historical detail throughout this series and Alcatraz! is no different. From the moment the young men arrive on the island, the sense of foreboding and claustrophobia is overwhelming, even for the reader, because of Chase’s descriptions of The Rock, taking us back in time with Ash and Grant:
After climbing out of the boat and onto the dock, the men were separated into smaller groups. Each group was surrounded by four guards, each guard armed with a rifle, who marched them up a long steep path leading to the top of the island, where the buildings were located. The side of the path was sheer, and as they climbed higher, he could see unforgiving, jagged rocks below. Falling or trying to jump into the water would be suicide.
However, it is not just the history of the building itself that Chase captures, but the rigid daily routine of prisoners and as I have already touched upon, the treatment of the people within Alcatraz: homosexuals, black men, minors, and women, namely the prison secretary, Bertha. I find that after reading Chase’s Repeating History series, I am left with questions about these periods of history and if Chase, too, can have this affect upon her young adult target audience that can only be a positive thing; after all, as Grant and Ash are beginning to understand, it is from history that we learn lessons!
The reason Ash and Grant return to Alcatraz is to retrieve a locket belonging to the infamous gangster, Al Capone. As luck would have it, Ash is placed in the cell next to Capone and then he also finds himself under “Big Al’s” protection after stepping in Capone’s way when a guard swings his blackjack. After this, Capone takes Ash under his wing and the friendship that develops, under the circumstances, is interesting to follow. Chase rarely allows us to glimpse the ‘gangster’ we imagine Capone to be, instead creating him as a man living within the penitentiary system. As we are also to discover from gossiping inmates, Capone is ill and this also could have an effect upon the way Chase chose to portray him.
This story isn’t really focused on the romance as Ash and Grant are only able to steal short conversations through prison bars and we know the views of the society towards gay men. However, Chase does not allow the reader to forget that each young man is thinking about the other and frequently chapters will finish with reminders of their connection with each other.
I have to admit that generally by the fourth book in a series I am usually feeling disinterested, but that is not the case with Chase’s Repeating History series at all. In fact, Alcatraz! is probably my favorite so far because of the way Grant and Ash are maturing and learning from their experiences. I cannot wait for their next adventure!