Newbery Thoughts – Rascal

coverNorth (1964 Honor Book) – This is a memoir which is unusual in the Newbery world. This is the first straight up personal memoir I have encountered in my Newbery reading. It’s a pretty great book, light, fun, accessible. The prose is easy to take and the characters are likable one and all. North starts off with the best disclaimer I have ever read.

All of my friends in this book, both animals and humans, were real and appear under their rightful names.

A few less lovable characters have been rechristened.

In other words, this is all true but if I didn’t like you then while I may have changed your name you are still in here.

North lives in a kind of early 20th century woodland boyhood idyll. He fishes, climbs, and explores all with his inquisitive companion Rascal, a raccoon that he raises as a pet. The book is actually a record of the year that the two spent together from when Rascal was a tiny kit that had to be fed by hand until North finally releases him back into the woods. They have a great friendship and Rascal is a delightful and irascible companion.

There isn’t much conflict and there is little overarching story. The narrative is more one of anecdotes and incidents than it is a convention start middle end story. North is a great writer and he allows a lot to come through his good midWestern prose. He misses his mother, he wonders about the changing nature of the world around him, he worried about his brother off fighting in WW I.

While North and Rascal’s freedom is a major point of discussion in the book (as in they portraitcan’t possibly get enough of it), there are some cultural shifts which make reading this book now quite shocking. Sterling North was frankly neglected by his father. This is hard to hear and he has a very loving attitude toward his father but we also see that his father leaves him alone in their farmhouse for weeks at a time. Food is delivered, the boy is not hungry, but he spends long periods of time alone and without adult supervision. At the time of the book he is 11 years old and yet:

My father sent a postcard from Montana saying he would not be coming home for another ten days or two weeks. Fortunately we ran a charge account at the meat market and at one of the groceries. But to raise money for staples and hinges I had to dig and sell two more bushels of my potatoes. I was somewhat lonesome and very grateful for Rascal’s companionship day and night.

The modern reader would also have trouble with the way that Rascal comes into North’s life. He and a friend dig him out of his den after scaring away his mother and take him away. It is tough to read for the 21st century audience. The raccoon has a perfectly good and healthy mother, indeed she tries hard to shield and protect the kit, but North, who has lost his mother himself, takes him anyway. Then, when it is clear that Rascal is a full grown adult raccoon North abandons him in the woods. Much of this book is a hymn to a much loved animal but there are parts of it that are hard for modern animal lovers to take.

It’s really interesting to see this book in the context of the larger Newbery ecology. This was an honor book the year that It’s Like This Cat by Emily Naville won the prize. It’s REALLY interesting to consider them side by side. Both works have a young male narrator who has a prized pet which leads them into young adulthood. That is about where the similarities end and that is what makes it interesting. One is very rural (farmland Wisconsinrascaltree) one is very urban (NYC, Manhattan no less). Sterling North’s parents are largely absent and David’s parents are very present. One is a memoir, one is fiction (written by an author of another gender).

I think that the greatest difference, and the one that makes me feel that the Newbery Committee made the right decision, is that
Rascal looks backwards (an early subtitle which is not now used as much is “A Memoir of a Better Era”), while It’s  Like This Cat looks forward. Rascal looks back to a distant past when boys wandered undisturbed forests and a horse and chaise could beat a Model T in a race at the County Faire. It’s Like This Cat looks to the future of young people engaged in the modern world around them. Rascal is focused on “the good old days” while It’s Like This Cat is a consideration of our bright new future.

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