Skunks, woodchucks, a crow named Poe, an absent-minded father, an eighteen foot, half-finished canoe in the living room—welcome to the North home! Nothing’s surprising at the North residence. Not even eleven-year-old Sterling’s new pet raccoon. Rascal is only a baby when young Sterling... read more
Subtitled "a memoir of a better era," North's book is a prose poem to adolescent angst. Rascal chronicles young Sterling's loving yet distant relationship with his father, dreamer David Willard North, and the aching loss represented by the death of his mother, Elizabeth Nelson North. (The book... read more (warning: may contain spoilers)
Subtitled "a memoir of a better era," North's book is a prose poem to adolescent angst. Rascal chronicles young Sterling's loving yet distant relationship with his father, dreamer David Willard North, and the aching loss represented by the death of his mother, Elizabeth Nelson North. (The book also touches on young Sterling's concerns for his older brother Herschel, who is in Europe fighting in World War One). The boy reconnects with society through the unlikely intervention of his pet raccoon, a "ringtailed wonder" charmer that dominates almost every page. The book begins with the capture of the baby raccoon, and follows his growth to a yearling.
The story is also a personal chronicle of the era of change between the (nearly) untouched forest wilderness and agriculture; between the days of the pioneers and the rise of towns; and between horse-drawn transportation and automobiles, among other transitions. The author's through-a-boy's-eyes view of his observations during expeditions in and around his home town, contrasted with his father's reminiscences of the time "when Wisconsin was still half wilderness, when panthers sometimes looked in through the windows, and the whippoorwills called all night long",<1> provide a glimpse of the past, as the original subtitle suggests.
The book is filled with humorous moments. His sister Theo cannot understand Sterling's building of a canoe in the living room and is "startled nearly out of her wits" when Rascal, who had been lying on and blending into Uncle Justus' Amazonian jaguar rug, stands up. Later in the book, Rascal joins him in a pie eating contest, and they win, but are disqualified, although his friend, Oscar Sunderland, takes first prize because of it. Rascal also enjoyed riding in his bicycle's basket, and helped him sell magazines by creating an animated sideshow.
The book also has serious moments. The author's brother Herschel is serving in the military during World War I, and Sterling longs for a word from him. Rascal is confined after he bites an annoying lad who snaps him with a rubber band. Later, Sterling catches a mild case of the Spanish flu during the epidemic. (It is stated in the book that his Aunt Alice, who took care of him during his sickness, said that Sterling's mother had wanted him to be a writer, which he achieved.)
Eventually the problems with Rascal's raids into fields and henhouses become too much of an issue; the neighbors' irritation with the boy's pet can no longer be ignored. In addition, Rascal has become a young adult and, as such, is getting attention from jealous male and interested female raccoons. Sterling realizes that Rascal is a wild animal and can no longer be kept, unless always kept in a cage. He travels in the newly completed canoe to release Rascal in the woods at the far side of the nearby lake.
The author's sister, the strait-laced poet and art historian Jessica Nelson North, is one note of early 1900s normalcy in the book. She wasn't particularly pleased with how her brother portrayed her family in Rascal (yet was proud of her brother's achievement, regardless).
The theme of Rascal is not friendship, but loss, and the transcendence of it. Sterling loses his mother, the attention of his father, his brother to war, and eventually his best friend, Rascal, but survives and learns from it.
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