Illustrated by John Schoenherr
Sterling North entitled his autobiographical tale of childhood Rascal: A Memoir of a Better Era, and the protagonist is not so much the eleven year old boy or even the raccoon, but rather a wondrous way of life. For children who live tightly scheduled lives in this day and age, it is surprising and exhilarating to witness the freedom afforded the young Sterling in a small Wisconsin town in 1918. Having lost his mother at the age of seven, he lives alone with his father, a fond but absent minded scholarly dreamer who goes off for weeks at a time on trips involving misguided farm transactions, leaving his son to fend for himself. Of necessity, Sterling is a self-sufficient and resourceful boy. He earns money by selling produce from his victory garden, hawking Saturday Evening Posts, or trapping muskrats (until he swears off harming animals). He accumulates a menagerie, including Wowser the St. Bernard, Poe-the-Crow, and a family of skunks. He singlehandedly builds an 18 foot canoe in the living room, and spends whole days out in the woods, exploring or fishing, on his own.
When he brings a raccoon kit home from one of his rambles in the woods, Rascal immediately becomes an integral member of this eccentric household. He sleeps in Sterling’s bed, sits in a highchair at the dining table, and steals sugar cubes from the sugar bowl. Over the course of the year, the two share the adventures of life, whether it be a two week camping trip in the north woods or a blueberry pie eating contest at the fair. Skillfully interwoven into their story is the backdrop of WWI (Sterling’s older brother is fighting in France), the nostalgic flavor of small town Wisconsin, and a paeon to the natural world.
Though Rascal has become a fairly well known classic in the U.S., the raccoon achieved celebrity status in Japan, spawning Rascal stores filled with theme paraphernalia, Nintendo video games, and an unfortunate craze for imported raccoons as family pets. This resulted from a year-long TV serialization of the book, created in part by Hayao Miyazaki. Although Araiguma Rascal was never translated into English, children can substitute Miyazaki’s anime masterpiece, My Neighbor Totoro, whose eponymous character bears some resemblance to Rascal. After the pablum of Hollywood cartoons, the beautiful hand drawn animation, plot originality, and moral complexity of Miyazaki’s many films (Kiki’s Delivery Service, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Castle in the Sky, among them) are an exquisite revelation.
Aside: “He had learned to stand in the closely woven wire basket with his feet wide apart and his hands firmly gripping the front rim, his small button of a nose pointed straight into the wind, and his ring tail streaming back like the plume of a hunting dog that has come to a point.”