Rascal was published in 1963. The book is a remembrance of a year in his childhood during which he raised a baby raccoon named "Rascal."
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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", 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 Lillie, 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.
It was made into the Disney movie Rascal in 1969 starring Bill Mumy as Sterling North. The film also featured the voice of Walter Pidgeon as the reminiscing grown Sterling North, Steve Forrest as his father Willard and Pamela Toll as his sister Theo.
The Sterling North Museum and book locations
The setting of the book, their childhood home in Edgerton, Wisconsin (known as Brailsford Junction in the book), is preserved as a museum. The author's daughter, Arielle North Olson, a respected children's author in her own right, is an honorary director of the museum. Rascal related items at the museum include: the high chair where Rascal tried to eat the sugar cube, the barn where Rascal's entrance hole has been patched, the oak tree where Rascal stayed, Sterling's scratched sentiment of "Damn Kaiser Bill" on the barn (his brother was serving in WWI), Sterling's initials painted inside the garage with the same green paint that went on his canoe, and a recreation of the chicken wire screen protecting their Christmas tree.
The Canoe Paddle
The canoe paddle created by Sterling North for the canoe that North built at his childhood home is displayed in the museum of the Albion Academy in Albion, Wisconsin. The canoe, unfortunately, was destroyed in the 1960s fire of Kumlien Hall.
In 2008, the Okazaki World Children's Art Museum in Japan created an exhibition entitled "A Retrospective Rascal". 50,000 people toured the display, timed to correspond to Sterling's 100th birthday and the 30th anniversary of the anime, Araiguma Rasukaru, which was based on the book. The canoe paddle was specially sent to Japan to be the centerpiece of the exhibit. Many other items borrowed from individuals in the Edgerton area were displayed.
- Rascal, chap. 3; there are also reminiscences about pioneer naturalist Thure Kumlien (1819-88).
- Young Reader's Choice Award
- The Sterling North Society and Museum
- Rascal book and anime photos, by John Foust
- Albion Academy Historical Marker - Wisconsin Historical Markers on Waymarking.com
- Albion Academy (Historic Marker)
- Feb 2009 newsletter of the Sterling North Society, page 3
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