The day the libraries closed in our state, I chanced to pick up some fine titles to see us through the Great Lockdown. At the time I anticipated that my family of voracious readers would simply need a surplus of fresh reading material to pass the extra hours; I did not yet fully appreciate how essential great books would be to maintaining a positive attitude and a sense of hope in a time so wildly uncertain. Now, after five weeks of quarantine and at least as many more ahead of us, I believe more than ever in the power of quality literature – quality children’s literature – to supply us with the imaginative and moral strength for the challenges of life.
One such book is Rascal, the famous American classic by Sterling North. I vaguely remembered the story from my youth, about a boy and his pet raccoon. What I did not recall, and perhaps could not have recognized as a child (although I did certainly benefit from it), was just how well this book is written.
A true story based on the author’s own childhood, the idyllic year shared by the boy and his pet is told in North’s own voice. He reflects on his youth with riveting clarity and insight. Young Sterling captures a baby raccoon and takes it home to raise among his menagerie of other memorable creatures. With his mother dead and his father largely absent, he is free to do as he pleases; but instead of becoming the neighborhood terror, he uses his time wisely.
Sterling takes Rascal the raccoon everywhere with him in the basket of his bicycle, and readers are treated to an authentic glimpse of a charmed old-fashioned boyhood: going fishing, exploring caves, milking cows, winning a pie-eating contest, building a canoe in the middle of the living room; all with a clever little masked sidekick who sleeps curled neatly in the boy’s bed.
Set against a backdrop of world war, parental loss, and the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, Sterling is old enough to be very much aware of how he is affected by these affairs (he is in fact sickened by the Flu, and his brief description of its ravages is now hauntingly familiar, right down to the masks). The months depicted are the last of his life in which the troubles of the world are superseded by the comfort he finds in his curious friend. Yet for the duration of the story, he introduces readers to another world in which he is clearly more comfortable: where he knows the call of every bird and the names of all the rocks and flowers.
Indeed, North’s knowledge of the natural world is fascinating, and he weaves his mother’s love of biology into the story as deftly as he does her memory. At a time when higher education was by no means the norm, all the Norths not only pursued it but maintained lifelong interest in various fields of study. Sterling’s unflappable father suddenly taking the day off work so that he might take his son (and Rascal, of course) out into the wilderness of the old family farm to listen to the whippoorwills is a typical formative moment for this boy on the cusp of adolescence.
For children, this story is a precious romp through the year with an adorable mammalian companion. The human character sketches, though brief, are timeless and equally endearing. Young readers will laugh and, in the end, probably cry as Sterling ultimately chooses to release his restless soulmate back into the wild. When he does – using the canoe that he has finally finished – the door closes on his childhood, and we know that he will never be the same.
Adults will perhaps laugh even harder at Rascal’s dear shenanigans, and yearn deeply for those last echoes of pristine childhood joy. We will recognize in these pages a timely reminder of what the young ones cannot yet articulate: that when life is frightening, we all seek retreat among the simple and familiar. When everything else is beyond our control, we long for our own equivalents of a strawberry soda and carefree ramble through the woods; but we know that once those metaphorical raccoons of our youth have been released into the wild, they can never be reclaimed. They vanish, like the virgin forests of Wisconsin.
When, God-willing, we emerge on the other side of this crisis, I hope my son doesn’t just remember the endless days of missing his friends and the hodge-podge pantry meals; the grown-ups speaking in low voices and wearing masks to do the shopping. I hope he remembers playing with the new litter of kittens in the barn, and building forts out of sticks and baling twine, and snuggling up next to his mama to read a story about a boy much like himself: who couldn’t stop bad things from happening in the world, but learned to love every creature and care for others with a resilience beyond his years.
If you liked this book you might also enjoy: Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls