Saturday, August 4, 2012

Rascal by Sterling North

This review is a re-post from my old book blog.  I'm buying myself time, as my review of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is a little more involved.  Stay tuned, however. It is coming soon to a theater near you.  Perhaps it is a good time for me to clarify what I mean when I say I review old books. This is what 'old' means for our purposes:  old means quite a bit older than I am.  As a result, I am always--by definition--nowhere near old.  Sterling North was born in 1906; hence, I'm including this review of his boyhood memoir, Rascal.  I read it to my children awhile ago.  Maybe months, maybe a couple of years.  Who can keep track?  I am a stay-at-home mom.  A day is a week is a month is a year is a lifetime.

Here's a picture of Sterling North, looking not-that-old-at-all.  How cute is he?

In Rascal, North recalls his adventures raising an orphaned raccoon kit near Lake Koshkonong in the backwoods of Wisconsin during World War I. The narrative unfolds with a kind of unhurried chronology, winding along the months of one calendar year. North's impish raccoon, Rascal, is the source of many charming and funny anecdotes; however, the book's themes broaden, touching on naturalism, death (both private death, as Sterling processes the loss of his mother and national bereavement, as he matures against the backdrop of war), loyalty, abandonment, and love.

North describes his affection for Rascal with aching detail. The warmth and fervor that mark North's allegiance to Rascal contrast with the diplomatic detachment he shows when describing his father's benign neglect and intellectual absorption. We see North stumbling toward adulthood, clinging to the companionship of a wild animal as his father leaves him alone for weeks at a time. As spring approaches and Rascal begins to grow discontent with captivity, we see the fruit of North's stout, selfless love and his tender rationality.

The language in the book is rich, stately, and evocative. We read it slowly, pausing to supply definitions and to marinate in the spare imagery. I appreciated North's cheerful tenacity as a boy. He set a good example for taking joy in hard, creative work. Also, the World War I references are colorful and illustrative of the period. My nine year old made several historical connections as we read. I highly recommend dusting off this 1964 Newbery Winner. 

PS:  Isn't it weird that the word 'Newbery' has only one r?  Doesn't it bug your eyes?  No?  Okay.

PPS:  Ever wonder what it takes to win a Newbery Medal?  Check this out.

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