(Reviewed by J.D. Jung)
When I visit San Francisco, I often gaze over the bay to that small island that radiates so much history. This island housed some of America’s most infamous criminals: Al Capone, Robert Franklin Stroud (the Birdman of Alcatraz), George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Mickey Cohen, and many others. On this visit though, I saw Alcatraz a little differently, that is, from the perspective of the families living there. That was because I was immersed in Tara Ison’s riveting novel, A Child Out of Alcatraz. I can assure you that reading this gem during the trip was purely coincidental.
I previously assumed that the guards and other employees who worked at the prison just took the ferry over from the City everyday. Instead, they and their families actually lived on the island, forming their own tight-knit and somewhat claustrophobic community. What was also fascinating was how their lives in many ways paralleled that of the prison.
This was definitely the case with the Thornton family. Vivian derailed her educational and career plans in the 1930’s to marry law student, Arthur Thornton. His life also took an unexpected turn as he returned from the Pacific during WWII with a Purple Heart accompanied by a dose of guilt. He later became a prison guard at the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary. They brought their two children over to the island, and their youngest, Olivia, was born there.
Alcatraz isn’t just a setting in this novel; it is an actual character. This character contributes to the emotional state of each of the family members, especially Vivian and Olivia.
The story contains much of the actual Alcatraz history–such as its beginning, attempted inmate breakouts and its eventual closure–interspersed with Vivian’s and Arthur’s life. What brings it all together are the chapters told from the perspective of Olivia, as she watched her mother slowly crumble. None of the Thornton children left the island unscathed, but we especially see how this life affected Olivia even as an adult. This structure of the novel keeps the reader engaged.
Ison provides a fascinating and well-researched history lesson not only of Alcatraz, but of American women living in the mid-20th century. However, she leaves a lot for the reader to figure out and later contemplate. I can imagine how Vivian felt discarded after fulfilling her “Rosie the Riveter” role during WWII, though it is never actually stated. Especially interesting was Olivia trying to reconcile her life with the culture of the rapidly changing times- the Beat era, and then the Hippie movement that followed.
This isn’t another formulated story on unfulfilled dreams. Vivian was raised by politically and socially liberal parents who were very supportive of their brilliant daughter’s ambition. So her life decisions were not based so much on her parents’ views of her, but more on her opinions of herself and society’s views towards women.
Those interested in the cultural and socio-economic history of 20th century America, as well as a personal, well-written story, are sure to enjoy A Child Out of Alcatraz.