Puffin (2004), First Published in 1963
Paperback, 192 pages
Sterling North takes us back in time to his Wisconsin childhood home to tell the charming tale of Rascal, his mischievous and delightful pet raccoon. Full of gentle antics and simple pleasures, the adventures of Rascal and Sterling begin in May, 1918.
Eleven year old Sterling is a solitary boy. Four years earlier his mother died and his father is often absent on business trips, sometimes leaving him alone for weeks. Sterling is the youngest of four siblings, two grown sisters Theo and Jessica, and brother Herschel who is fighting in France during this First World War. Sterling’s kind and indulgent father allows many freedoms and the young boy can come and go as he pleases, build a canoe in the living room, and keep as many pets as the backyard can hold. Chief amongst these are Wowser, the 170 pound Saint Bernard, thief extraordinaire Poe the Crow, and several skunks that had to be set free after spraying the Methodists during Sunday evening services.
On the way to the swimming hole Sterling, Wowser, and friend Oscar come upon family of raccoon cubs and catch one for Sterling’s backyard menagerie. Oscar’s mother shows him how to feed the baby animal with milk through a wheat straw. At first Rascal slept in a hollow of a tree until one night Sterling wakes to find raccoon paws on his face. Wanting company, the intrepid animal had opened the screen door and found his way to the boy’s bedroom. At that moment Sterling had a new best friend.
Their friendship grew over the summer. Rascal was a delightful companion and always ready for fun and games. He rode in Sterling’s bicycle basket to go fishing for crayfish and much hilarity ensued. Shiny things were especially irresistible and Rascal often fought for stolen prizes with Poe the Crow. When Sterling’s indomitable older sister Theo came to visit, her wedding ring went missing. Sterling realized the noisy scuffle during the night was a tremendous battle between bird and beast over the special prize. Poe the Crow won that round and Sterling found the ring in his nest made of other stolen plunder.
Not all was well however. Rascal developed a love of sweet corn and began stealing from neighbor’s gardens. A meeting was held and it was decided that Rascal must be caged and walk on a leash around town. For a cool down period Sterling’s father took Sterling for a memorable two week trip to Lake Superior where a kindly fly fisherman showed him how to tie his first flies.
In the fall Rascal’s troubles resumes. School started and the raccoon was invited to Sterling’s class where he delighted the children with his antics. The fun ended abruptly when the class bully snapped him with a rubber band and received a sharp nip in return. Although he didn’t start the fight, Rascal was confined to his cage for fourteen days to check for rabies.
Spanish influenza hit the town and schools closed. When Sterling showed symptoms of the dreaded illness, his Uncle Fred and Aunt Lillian took care of him on the large farm they ran with the help of their three sons. It was there Sterling turned twelve on the same day as False Armistice Day. The ending of the war overshadowed Sterling’s birthday celebration but he was too happy that Herschel would be coming home to care.
With the danger of influenza passed, Sterling looked forward to Christmas. With Rascal’s love of shiny things Sterling was hard pressed to find a way to allow the raccoon in the house with dozens of ornaments on the Christmas tree. So the resourceful boy built a frame, covered it with chicken wire, and set it in front the bay window, with the decorated Christmas tree safely inside.
In the spring, Rascal began stealing from the neighbors again and Sterling had to make a difficult decision, one that would change the course of both their lives.
I feel Rascal is the best of Sterling North’s works and is highly recommended for the whole family. A pet’s loving companionship has remarkable healing qualities that does wonders for a person suffering from a devastating loss. Sterling not only finds the strength to move forward after his mother’s death, but interestingly, a way to properly grieve and remember her.
North’s descriptions of life and times of early twentieth century show us a gentler time, where good people live and work. Interesting details pepper the book. For example, when Sterling had to buy Rascal a leash and collar Mr. Shadwick, the harness maker, actually made the collar and leash while they waited. Also, the fact that an eleven year old boy made a canoe all by himself is a remarkable accomplishment.
I hope many children read and enjoy this book. It will stay with you for a lifetime.
Newbery Honor Book- 1964
Sequoyah Book Award – 1966
Young Reader’s Choice Award – 1966
Some interesting sites to visit:
Rascal history site: http://www.gojefferson.com/rascal/index.html
The Sterling North Society: http://www.sterlingnorthsociety.com/
Rascal was made into a Disney movie in 1969.