“It was in May, 1918, that a new friend and companion came into my life: a character, a personality, and a ring-tailed wonder.”
That’s Rascal, when 11-year-old Sterling pulls him from his mother’s nest one May.
Sterling and his friend, Oscar, and his Saint Bernard, Wowser, had originally thought it would be good fun to scoop all four kits and the mother raccoon, so that they could watch all the kits grow up.
But an elaborate entrapment scheme goes awry, and the boys must content themselves with a single kit.
There’s no question of Oscar taking the kit home with him because his father has no love for raccoons (and, outwardly, very little for his own son).
But Sterling’s mother died a few years ago and now lives along with his father, who is endlessly working on a novel and allows for a whole menagerie of creatures to fill his household and a half-built canoe to fill the living-room.
Rascal is a comfort for Sterling; he snuggles up with him when Sterling is haunted by nightmares of the war that his brother is off fighting in France.
The raccoon is also a source of entertainment, swiping shiny objects and lying on his back to tilt a bottle of strawberry soda upwards so that he can drink the last few drops left inside.
But he is also…a rascal.
Any young reader with a penchant for animals will respond immediately to the stories of Rascal’s escapades (although if I’d read it when young myself I likely would have happily understood that raiding a raccoon’s den was not only permissable but encouraged).
And, yet, there is a “good ol’ days” feel to the narrative, as Sterling North is clearly looking back on his childhood escapades with Rascal in Wisconsin and placing those events in a context which might be less engaging for young readers.
I can imagine that modern readers of Sterling’s age, meeting Rascal independently, might skip past the descriptions of other woodland residents (when the detail of flora and fauna weighs heavier), and the talk of concepts rooted in the adult world (e.g. censorship, rationing, and influenza).
But young readers making Rascal’s acquaintance along with an adult reader, can be readily engaged in these aspects of the story, too — with very little additional commentary required for context — even if, ultimately, it’s the stories like that about Rascal and the sugar bowl that stick.
I’m partial to the author’s declaration on the publication page: “All of my friends in this book, both animals and human, were real, and appear under their rightful names. A few less lovable characters have been rechristened.”