Monday, March 16, 2015

Reviewing Sterling North's “Rascal”

When I finished reading 100 new, chapter-length books in a year last November, I did something I normally don’t do. With all of December open before me, I actually re-read some books that I’d been meaning to re-read for some time. Some books are just like a good glass of cool water on a parched throat. They hit the spot so well that even as you lick your lips at the last drop, you wish you could go back and feel that sense of satisfaction for just awhile longer. 

But with so many new books I want to read—and as that list is constantly growing—I rarely get time to do more than peruse and skim the books I own and have read once before. Some readers, I know, don’t re-read at all. Others are almost the opposite; they find a series they love and re-read it every year, some of them rarely venturing into new territories at all.  My heart lies somewhere in the middle. New books are like traveling. Re-reading is like going home. And with that longing for home in mind—especially around the holidays—I decided last December to read some books that my mom read to me when I was home-schooled. It was a middle-ground: I’d heard the words, but technically I’d never “read” these books myself. 

Every Christmas I come down with what I call “Charlie Brown” syndrome. A desire to get away from all the commercialism and lights, and get a feel of what Christmas really means. I think that’s reflected in what I decided to re-read, as well. And there’s no better place to start looking for a story of “a simpler time” than Sterling North’s Rascal: A Memoir of a Better Era. 

Rascal is a memoir of a year in the life of Sterling North, a boy growing up in Edgerton, WI during World War I. Sterling’s childhood is far from perfect: his mother died, leaving him to an indifferent parenting style (almost an un-parenting style) from his aloof lawyer father, his brother is away at war, and his older sisters insist on meddling in his upbringing and preventing him from building a canoe in the living room. With all these sources of anxiety, Sterling surrounds himself with friends of the four-legged variety for company and comfort: a Saint Bernard named Wowser, four adopted skunks, Poe-the-Crow, various muskrats and woodchucks, and of course the star of the story, a baby raccoon named Rascal.

I think this is where I added “raccoons” to my (long) list of favorite animals. My family liked this book so much that when we got a cat, we named him Sterling (though in many ways the cat acts like the chirruping, nocturnal, and rambunctious raccoon more than the boy, especially when he likes to sit at the table or perch on my shoulder). Rascal is clever, friendly, mischievous, wild, and hilarious. Even re-reading it, I laughed out loud until I snorted when I read how he discovered sugar and, in typical raccoonian fashion, tried to wash a lump of it under water before eating it…only to end up searching his bowl of water frantically for the “lost” morsel. As an adult, I of course know that raccoons do not make good pets, and are much happier in the wild than in a domestic environment. Secretly, though, I still harbor the childhood desires to have a raccoon sleeping next to me under the open sky, with owls’ lullabies bouncing off the close-bent stars. 

If anything, though, Rascal also teaches that raccoons don’t make good pets. Hilarious as Rascal’s antics get, North makes it clear that he was very much a wild animal, and only so much could be done to train him when his instincts were telling him to do things like eat neighbor’s eggs. Soon Sterling finds himself in another predicament: all his neighbors hate his raccoon even more than his skunks, and some are even ready to shoot Rascal on sight.  He’s face with a choice: keep Rascal under lock and key and hope the clever creature won’t escape and get himself killed, or set him free and lose his most constant companion.

This is one of the few animal novels I’ve read where—and I don’t mind spoiling this—the pet doesn’t die at the end. Almost every pet book I’ve read has been about a dog that dies. This one has a bittersweet ending as well, mostly because as soon as Sterling took that kit out of its natural environment, he put himself in this impossible situation that happens whenever the two worlds of civilization and wilderness collide. But it also ends like a last gulp of cool water: very satisfactory, and making one desire to experience it again for the first time. This desire is impossible, of course. Good thing, then, that it’s just about as satisfying the second time around, too.

Recommended Reading Age: Sterling is eleven in the story, so it seem the perfect age to read it the first time.  It’s not too scary for younger ages, though.
Parental Notes: References to both evolution and Christianity could be confusing to younger readers. 
Availability: It is still easily arranged to get a first edition such as my hardcover.
Adaptations: Disney adapted this in 1969, just six years after the book won the Dutton Animal Book award. It has the same feel as “Old Yeller” and “Pollyanna” and the myriad of other books Disney was pumping out in technicolor at the time, but for the most part it’s true to the plot.

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