I have been planning and musing over a short story idea, and one of the things I wish to implement is a wise narrating voice of a male ornithologist recalling his boyhood experiences. I thought of Rascal (1963), that beautifully written and illustrated memoir by Sterling North. The story covers one year (May 1918-May 1919) in the author’s life growing up in Wisconsin with his father and many pets, specifically his pet raccoon, Rascal. I was given the abridged version titled Little Rascal (probably for younger children), a red hardcover with a sketch of a raccoon embossed in black on the lower right corner of the book. There were more illustrations in that version than in the original Rascal: Gorgeous “scratchboard” illustrations by John Schoenherr that—although rendered only in black and white—glow with life and light.
I have kept some books from both my childhood and my children’s. But alas, not that book. I searched the shelves high and low. Although it was a favourite, I must have gotten rid of it during one of the many moving purges over the years. I took Rascal: A Memoir of a Better Era out of the curriculum library here at the University, and I’ve been enjoying reading the full version of the story.
North’s writing is spare and lovely. He explains the natural world simply, for the young reader, but without talking down to his junior audience. Indeed, the book captures the attention of readers of all ages. When the boy and his father realize Rascal, the pet raccoon, will need eventually to be caged because he’s developed a taste for sweet corn, Sterling’s father plans a trip in Northern Wisconsin, near Lake Superior for the three of them: father, son, and raccoon.
North describes this childhood idyll, two weeks of camping and fishing in the woods. One day, Sterling and Rascal make a discovery in their rambles along a river:
“Then, half a mile farther upstream, we came upon it suddenly—a little lake which was the very source, as round as a big drop of dew and as clear. Its shores were of clean sand and gravel, and it was cupped among low hills, forested with evergreens, with several white birches standing in sharp relief against this background of dark firs.
There were water lilies in the shallows, their floating pads large enough for little frogs to sit on, and blossoms the size of saucers, where green and scarlet dragonflies held court.” (93-4).
My experience of reading this book again is that I revert to the dreamy, safe space of my child self’s imagination. In these imaginary green spaces, I once felt that the world was whole and benign.
North does not adorn his descriptions with multisyllabic adjectives; he sticks to plain words like “little” and “big,” “low” and “sharp,” and colour words “green and scarlet.” He welcomed me into this warm world when I was very young, and I love returning there.
There is a lake just a twenty-minute car ride from where I live. Recently my friend and I took a dip there. The water lilies had just emerged, pure and white amidst lacquered pads. As we slid into the cool water, we could see an eagle take flight from an old log across the small lake. He thrust his big wings, scooped the air, and was lifted up, up. His white head sparkled against the blue sky. Dark conifers surrounded us, and the dragonflies were dancing, just as they did one hundred years ago for Sterling North.
North, Sterling. Rascal: A Memoir of a Better Era. New York, NY: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1963.