Money and Desperation: The Creation of a Villain
Bad situations can make villains of anyone. This is the theme of the young adult novel, Al Capone Does My Homework by Gennifer Choldenko, proving that despite the name and definition, young adult novels aren’t just for teens. Within the novel, Choldenko’s character Donny Caconi, is revealed to have been willing to light an apartment on fire with two children inside for money, clearly marking him as a villain in this work of fiction. However, when analysed using New Historicism, the taking of the historical context of the novel into account, the black and white lines of hero and villain become blurred. Money, and who does and does not have it, drives the plot of Al Capone Does My Homework, mostly due to the effect it has on the characters of the novel. This is a representation of the economic status of the 1930s, the setting of the novel, when the Great Depression was behind every sociocultural aspect of the time. The depression created a desperation within everyone at the time. With this in mind, it becomes clear that it is not always a bad apple, but a bad barrel, and Donny Caconi, the villain of this novel, was first a victim of the depression.
The most predominant plot aspects of Al Capone Does My Homework are the question of who set the fire and why, as well as the case of the counterfeit money. Both aspects of the plot are centred on money, which further emphasizes the importance of finances during the 1930s and its significance in not only economics, but also in the sociocultural life during the time. The whole world revolved around money, or rather the lack of it, during the Great Depression. Many people during the time struggled to provide basic needs for themselves, such as housing and food (Gregory), leading to many despairing people willing to do anything to provide for themselves. This is accurately represented through the two plot points, due to the person behind each action: Donny Caconi. Donny Caconi set the fire, as well as smuggled out the counterfeit money, due to his desperation for money. Through Donny’s actions, Choldenko was able to emphasize the need for money, along with the circumstances of everyday people during the time, which leads the reader to the theme.
Donny Caconi is initially described as “everybody’s long-lost friend” and everyone “really like[s] him” (5). He is someone that no one would expect to commit such a horrific crime, such as the arson and almost murder of Moose and Natalie. However, because more than 20 percent of the population was unemployed during the Great Depression, “the penniless and destitute turned more often to loan sharks” (Saviano) resulting in money that people were unable to pay back. The reality of this unfortunate, but common circumstance is mirrored in Donny Caconi. Even before Donny’s involvement in the fire is revealed, it is understood that he is obsessed with obtaining money. The first hint of this is seen when the children overhear Caconi’s conversation on the phone that “sounds like maybe he owes somebody money” (45). It is also revealed that Donny had been asking the children’s parents for money, as well. This scene is essential in understanding Donny’s character, because it shows how desperate and scared he was. Loan sharks, aptly named, are not known for being kind or forgiving, and it is likely that Donny had to fear being broke, in both meanings of the word. It also showed that he was not afraid to ask for help, which means violence was likely not his first solution.
Donny’s fear and desperation are even more clearly seen when he makes the bet with Moose over throwing bottle caps. As an adult, it seems unlikely that Donny should take money from Moose, a child, but this is exactly what happens. “When the ferry puts down the gangplank, he gets on without looking back,” (71), taking the money from Moose, Theresa, and Piper. This action displays more about Donny, particularly his ruthlessness, or more likely anxiety in regards to money, which he is willing to take from children who look up to him. Donny’s desperation is further revealed in his attempts to fix the poker game in his favour, alienating everyone who might have been able to help him.
Everyone is shocked by Donny’s cheating during the poker party. “This is Donny Caconi. Everybody likes Donny Caconi” (135), which does a lot in advancing the idea that this was outside of Donny’s usual character. The readers are only able to see the Donny that is desperate for money and safety, but the poker party shows that this is not who he is as a person. “I can’t believe Donny is a cheater,” Moose said to his father, and this is not just childish naivety, because Cam’s response is, “I was surprised too. I’m going to have to talk to him” (147). The Great Depression “gave a huge boost to gambling” (Wadhhaw) due to the majority’s lack of funds, where a dollar at the time was only worth about 75 cents (Dollar Times), and the general despair of the time gave way to reckless hope. It is because of this that it seems likely that this is not the first poker party to have taken place. This makes Donny’s betrayal of trust all the more surprising, and proving further that these actions, while all the reader sees, are a result of circumstance, and not of character.
Donny Caconi continues to unravel at the end of the novel. It is uncovered that Donny was paid fifty dollars by Darby, the exploiter of Donny’s weaknesses, to start the fire at the Flanagan’s. Fifty dollars during the time of the novel would be worth $921.50 in today’s economy (Dollar Times), making Donny’s selling price much higher than it initially appears. Soon after the mystery of the fire is solve, it also becomes suspected that “Donny was the guy who brought in the counterfeit money for the Count” (174) in an attempt to pay back his loan shark using fake money. These two actions reveal the reasoning behind the two main plot points of Al Capone Does My Homework and also show that Donny did not commit these crimes without reason, and while his actions are not completely defensible, as not everyone in the novel was willing to go to the same lengths as Donny, it does show that terrible actions are often the result of terrible circumstances. Even the children, with their limited understanding of the Depression’s hardships, were able to understand the reasoning behind Donny’s actions. “He owes a bunch of money to a loan shark…he was in way over his head. And when you owe money to a loan shark, they’ll beat you up if you don’t pay back” (175). This serves to describe what fear and desperation can turn a person into. Donny was everybody’s best friend, but because he had lost all of his money, along with his sense of safety, a psychological need, he was willing to do anything to gain it back. This left him open to being exploited by Darby, and most likely the Count, resulting in the two main conflicts of the novel.
If Al Capone Does My Homework had not been set during the Great Depression, none of the events of the plot would have played out the way Choldenko wrote them. Donny Caconi also serves to describe how an everyday person can be subjugated to the whims of another, and become so broken down that they are willing to commit multiple crimes in the hopes of saving themselves. Donny was characterized to describe the worst of the Great Depression, because he found himself lost in a situation that many people at the time also found themselves in. It was through this character, and his slow decline into villainy, that Choldenko was able to describe the lengths people can go to, when exposed to the level of helplessness that was felt by all during the 1930s. It also helps to bring understanding that while it is easier to think of the world in simple terms, not everything is black and white. Villains are not born as they are. Sometimes villains are the first victim and though it is important to remember that the motive does not bring forgiveness with it, the intention is still significant in trying to find understanding.