Sunday, September 23, 2007

Sterling North

One of the drawbacks of growing up overseas is that there are some books/authors that may be known here in the US that just never cross your radar screen. Such was the case for me with the author Sterling North and his best known work, Rascal a Memoir of a Better Era. I have only in recent years come to know it through the eyes of my children who have all discovered and enjoyed the story.

North was born November 4, 1906 in Edgerton, Wisconsin. (What is it about the Upper Midwest? They seem to churn out wonderful children's authors like corn.) His mother died when North was only seven and he was raised by his father and older sister. Raised might be a little overstating the case. As related in Rascal a Memoir of a Better Era, which is substantially autobiographical, his father was a somewhat dreamy, indulgent presence, when present at all, often being away on business. As a consequence, North was to a degree self-reared with an autonomy and independence which echoes that classic of American Boyhood, Tom Sawyer.

Firmly setting the benchmark for that autonomy is the building by North of his eighteen foot canoe - in the living room! It is that sort of detail and event which grabs a child's attention and perhaps reminds an adult. At one point in my childhood, probably when I was about six years old, we lived briefly in a newly built suburb of Houston. Among the things I remember is that a block or two from our house were some woods with a stream through it. Now it couldn't have been all that big a stream. But a moving body of water it was and to a six year old boy's mind that meant that one ought to have a raft to float upon that stream. So, probably to my mother's consternation, I set about building said raft in our back garden in the shade of an old oak tree.

There were plenty of materials, plywood, 2x4's etc. left over from our move to the house as well as from on-going construction in the neighborhood. I had a grand time planning, building, adding, having another idea and adding some more. Layer was added to layer, "cabins" on top of crawl spaces. The monstrosity that took form, a nautical Tower of Babel, was my personal delight and had absolutely no chance of being moved at all, to say nothing of being transported to the stream, much less staying in one piece or floating had it by some miracle been launched. I always had the somewhat wistful idea that perhaps a big storm would come along with such flooding that we would all have to seek refuge on my proto-ark but that never happened. I have no idea whatever became of my proto-ark but I sure remember the pleasure of building it.

Likewise with Rascal a Memoir of a Better Era, which is North's tale of a particular year when he eleven years old when he captured and raised a baby raccoon, Rascal. Still wrestling with the loss of his mother, enjoying/suffering what would today probably be regarded as criminal neglect, it was for North truly a memoir of a better era. Raising Rascal, making decisions about his welfare, confronting moral decisions about his own actions - he grew up far more than the twelve months would suggest.

Part of the beauty of the story is that it deals with weighty matters but from a child's perspective and without over-weighted moralizing or wailing of unfairness. He had issues to deal with, he learned how to deal with them, life went on. A child reading the story enjoys it for its deft touch of understanding what it would be like to be a child in those circumstances and can relate, be heartened and grieve with the protagonist. The Young Adult and Adult can read the story and understand deeper levels of implication.

But North was more than the author of a single home-run. His early career was as a newspaperman, first in Chicago and then in New York. He took up authorial writing in parallel with his career as a reporter with his first book The Pedro Garino: The Adventures of a Negro Sea-Captain in Africa, published in 1929. He wrote steadily throughout his newspaper career, producing books for both adults and children. In 1957 be became the founding editor of the Houghton Mifflin imprint, North Star Books.

Many of North's early books quarry his own childhood or are set in the Midwest. And, as so often happens, many of his books were originally stories created for his two children. Growing up in a rural setting, he had many animals as pets beyond Rascal the raccoon. These included cats, dogs, skunks and a crow named Edgar Allan Poe (AKA Poe the Crow and whose vice was to perch near congregating Methodists cawing rudely at them). Not surprisingly, animals are the center for many of his stories including Midnight and Jeremiah, So Dear to My Heart, and of course, Rascal.

In his career at North Star books, North edited more than thirty history books as well as writing half dozen himself including George Washington, Frontier Colonel and Abe Lincoln: Log Cabin to White House.

So Dear to My Heart and Rascal were both made into films.

Fortunately four of his five most popular books (Rascal, The Wolfling, George Washington and Abe Lincoln) are all still in print.

Try them out, but start with Rascal to warm your heart and grab the attention of your Independent Readers.

Sterling North passed away December 22, 1974 in Morristown, New Jersey.

Independent Readers

Abe Lincoln: Log Cabin to White House by Sterling North Suggested

George Washington, Frontier Colonel by Sterling North Suggested

Rascal: A Memoir of a Better Era by Sterling North and illustrated by John Schoenherr Highly Recommended

The Wolfling: A Documentary Novel of the Eighteen-Seventies by Sterling North Suggested

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