Have you ever spotted a book that you read as a kid and glowed uncontrollably? That warm, fuzzy feeling is what I hope to capture in a time-release bottle every time I recommend a title to my sixth graders. I know I shouldn’t be, but I’m always surprised when it happens to me.
The most recent wave of tender nostalgia struck me at the sight of the 1963 memoir Rascal, by Sterling North. I was a little wary of rereading it, worried that the story and the characters hadn’t aged well and I’d be crushed. I wasn’t.
Rascal is refreshingly wholesome. It’s the perfect antidote to today’s relentless fervor for dystopian worlds, zombies, and vampires.
Sterling is a responsible, resourceful, independent young boy. Set in a simpler time, 1918, he isn’t beset with computers, cell phones, and video games. The new-fangled technology that puts everyone on edge is the automobile. Due to his father’s long absences for work, Sterling is free to explore, fish, trap, and, of course, find the title raccoon, Rascal.
Sterling’s older brother, Herschel, is in France. Next year, 2014, marks the hundredth anniversary of the start of World War I, and I had forgotten some of the references to “the war to end all wars,” which make great jumping off points for history exploration. After the armistice, Herschel writes to his family about battles he endured: Haute-Marne, the Château-Thierry and Oise-Aisne Offensives, and the Meuse-Argonne.
At home, Sterling contracts a mild case of the Spanish Flu, the pandemic disease that wiped out 50 million people and afflicted 20 to 40 percent of the world’s population—another launch pad for a history journey.
The book’s diction and rich vocabulary are as refreshing as the story. Who can resist an interjection such as “ishkabibble!”? North uses precise words such as inveterate, contemporary, agates, jocosity, and somnolent. (Teachers: the novel clocks in at 1140L on the Lexile scale, which puts it in the upper band of grades 6-8 for the Common Core Standards.)
Rascal is not action-packed, but it will capture the imagination of a child who longs to be close to nature. As in the novels of Jean Craighead-George , the reader learns a lot about animal behavior.
At one point, Sterling travels with his father for an extended stay in the forests of northern Wisconsin in search of whippoorwills (as he puts it, “my father took me rambling”). Here’s the flavor of how an interested adult can guide a young naturalist:
Above us circled the nighthawks searching insects, their aerial acrobatics graceful and erratic.
“Notice the ovals of white under each wing,” my father said. “That is one of the few ways you can tell night-hawks from whippoorwills.”
“What other ways?”
“The whippoorwill’s call, of course, and his whiskers.”
“How can you get near enough to see a whippoorwill’s whiskers?”
“You seldom can,” my father admitted, “but on those which Kumlien mounted, they were obvious enough: stiff bristles on either side of the wide mouth, probably for sensing the flying insects he scoops up for food.”
Then, then it came! Three pure syllables, three times repeated:
Whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will.
A soloist against the symphony of the night making me feel weightless, airborne, and eerie – happy, but also immeasurably sad.
The environmental message is strong. Rascal won a Newbery Honor in 1964, the year biologist and ecologist Rachel Carson died. I’m certain she would have approved of the story. Another book worth investigating is Carson’s The Sense of Wonder, published posthumously. The book spawned an EPA contest.
After reading Rascal, you’ll find yourself looking at the wildlife in your backyard with fresh appreciation.