Rascal is Sterling North’s story of one year in his life as an eleven year old boy, the adoptive (by turns) parent, brother, and friend of an orphaned raccoon named Rascal. Sterling is the youngest child of a kind but neglectful widowed father. Sterling’s older sisters come back home at times and demand that something be done to about the lack of housekeeping, etc., but Sterling is generally left blissfully alone to raise his raccoon and build his canoe in the parlor. Life with Rascal is as exciting as one could expect–Rascal gets in trouble with the neighbors when he raids their gardens, and he is accused of being a rabid ‘coon when he protects himself from the school bully. Between these brushes with civilization, though, this book is a love song North wrote to an idyllic boyhood spent in the forests of Wisconsin. There are long descriptive passages of the forests and lakes that Sterling and Rascal explore together. Although these descriptive passages make the reading aloud part difficult (or perhaps I should say the reading and listening part difficult!), they are the parts I like best about the story. Here’s a little excerpt from a chapter in which Sterling, his father, and Rascal spend a couple of weeks together camping in the woods:
One loses sense of time in the woods. I had no watch to replace my broken Ingersoll and could only guess at the hour of the day by looking at the sun. I had even forgotten what day it was–and it certainly didn’t matter. No schoolbell or churchbell rang to remind us of the dutiful passage of time. One day blended into the next and could only be remembered as the day we saw the porcupine or the day we found Lost Lake. (91)
This aspect of the book reminds me a lot of The Trumpet of the Swan and nature-loving Sam Beaver (linked to my review). There is a good bit of natural history mentioned in the book, and some of it is evolutionary in nature. (I offer this as a “heads up” to anyone who might offer this to a child and find this problematic.) Sterling mentions that his mother is the one who taught him about the origins of the earth and that she reconciled this scientific explanation with the Biblical creation account. Although this matter is something Steady Eddie and I definitely want to study, discuss, and explore with our girls, I didn’t feel that our read-aloud time was the right time to begin the process, so I creatively edited this part. (I have no qualms about censoring materials on-the-fly as I’m reading to my girls if I come across something that is inappropriate.) I had another near-miss when Sterling mentions that his new teacher discussed the “facts of life” with his class. Again, this is not a subject I intend to skirt with the girls, but I didn’t feel the time was right for it, so I ended the session a little early.
Rascal is by far the most difficult book I’ve read to my girls, and at times I wondered if I had the tenacity to finish reading it aloud to them, but they’re funny that way–they won’t let me stop reading a story once we’ve begun it, no matter how much I doubt their involvement in it. Even with the aforementioned little episodes (and my editing), though, I think my girls really enjoyed this story. My used copy of the book has a handwritten notation inside the front cover that it is at a 7.9 reading level. (I’m guessing this is an Accelerated Reader level.) I think it would take a voracious seventh grader reader to persevere through the story alone, but for the nature or animal loving child, I don’t doubt that it would be worth it. Rascal won a Newbery honor in 1964. The story was also made into a movie, but I haven’t seen it. Does anyone care to weigh in on the movie version?
We’ve moved on to lighter fare this week, and while I’m glad to have closed the cover on Rascal for now, I’m equally as glad that we read it. What about your and your family? What are you enjoying these days? Link up your Read Aloud Thursday post in the comments.