Rascal by Sterling North

May 12, 2016

My dad did a fair share of the reading aloud to my siblings and me when we were growing up. Although my mom read quite a bit during the day, it was often my dad who read aloud at night. The books I remembered most vividly from him were Black Beauty, The Forgotten Carols (every Christmas), and the entire Little Britches series. (I'm sure my brothers would be quick to mention The Chronicles of Narnia, but I rarely listened in on those.)

But then one day, something reminded me of Rascal, and a quick flash of nostalgia went through me. I could picture my dad sitting in my brothers' room and holding the white cover of the book in his hands. I could remember his quiet, steady voice reading this quiet, steady story.  I wondered what other books I might have forgotten from my childhood, and I knew this was one I had to share with my kids.

It was one of three books I checked out from the library one day when we were trying to decide on our next readaloud, and after reading the synopsis of each book, my kids picked this one.

It's the autobiographical account of what happened during Sterling North's twelfth year. His mother died when he was seven, and his older brother and two older sisters are grown up and live away from home. His father, although kind, is far from being an involved parent. He basically lets Sterling do whatever he wants. Hence, Sterling is building a canoe in the front room and has quite a number of pets, and it's not at all shocking when Sterling comes home one day with a baby raccoon that he rescued after its mother abandoned it.

That little raccoon, named Rascal, becomes the best little companion and friend Sterling could ask for. But he is also a wild animal, and the more he grows, the harder it is for Sterling to keep control of him. By the following spring, Sterling knows what he has to do.

Most readalouds take us one to two weeks to finish. This one, even though it was not an especially long book, took us close to a month, and we felt that drag. It was part circumstance, I'm sure--we just had so many evenings where we had other things going on and couldn't read (this prompted me to reclaim some of our reading time and read before school on some days), but it was also due to it being a rather slow book. We didn't feel compelled to pick it up every day because it didn't really matter to our sanity if we found out what happened next, and when we did pick it up, we often only read a few pages because we didn't feel pressed to keep going.

The story was heavy on the descriptions, and these were usually the places that dragged for us. But sprinkled in between these were details of Rascal's antics, and this made the whole book worth it.

I've compiled a few of these moments, which is not something I normally do, but it's these cute pictures I want to remember when I think back on the book, so I hope you'll indulge me:

"But Rascal could only dog-paddle . . . For a three-month-old he was doing excellently. But soon he was panting from the exertion and looking to me as his natural protector. We were in deep water now, and the best I could do for him was to roll over on my back in a floating position, arch my chest, and offer him a good platform. He scrambled gratefully aboard, whimpering slightly in self-pity."
"Rascal was a demon for speed . . . He had learned to stand in the closely woven wire basket [of my bicycle] with his feet wide apart and his hands firmly gripping the front rim, his small button of a nose pointed straight in the wind, and his ring tail streaming back like the plume of a hunting dog that has come to a point . . . What he liked best was going full tilt down a steep hill."
"Rascal was begging for the last of my sandwich, standing on his capable hind legs, patting my cheek and reaching for the food."
"I had taught Rascal to be a living coonskin hat. He would take a firm grip on my ruck of curly hair, brace his strong hind paws on the collar of my Mackinaw, and enjoy the wildest rides he had ever experienced as we glided forward and backward over Culton's ice pond just south of the railroad tracks."
The sad part of the book for me was seeing how lonely this little 11-year-old Sterling was. His father does have some redeeming moments (one time, he takes the day off just so they can go out looking for whippoorwills; another time, they go on a two-week camping trip), but most of the time, he is just unavailable and very unobservant of Sterling's needs. He is not abusive in any way, but he just expects Sterling to be able to take care of himself and has no problem leaving for one or two weeks at a time on business trips.

As I mentioned at the beginning, Sterling spends most of the book building a canoe in his living room. He can't finish it because he needs to purchase a canvas to stretch across the whole thing to make it water tight, but he keeps needing his money for other more pressing purchases. His father never once helps him with the canoe and has no idea that Sterling is in need of supplies, and Sterling is not the kind of kid who asks for favors.

When his sister, Jessica,  comes home for Christmas, she demands that the canoe be removed from the living room, but Sterling explains that he can't until he gets the canvas and that will cost fifteen dollars, which he doesn't have anymore. Jessica is irate with their father for not helping Sterling get the canvas, but he says, "Now be reasonable, Jessica. I'm a busy man. I can't know everything that's going on in Sterling's head and I didn't know he needed money for canvas."

I just felt so bad for Sterling--not that he had to wait so long for a canvas; I don't think kids need to be immediately satisfied--but that his father didn't even know any of the details of the canoe that Sterling had spent months building. Sterling didn't seem to begrudge his father in the slightest, but it seems like they could have had a much stronger relationship if they'd only talked to each other. One camping trip in the summer wasn't enough.

Overall, I think this is a book my kids will have fond memories of, just like I did from when my dad read it aloud to me.

Which books do you remember your parents reading aloud to you? Please share favorite memories in the comments!

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