Since the death of his mother, eleven-year-old Sterling has been “batching it” with his father. His oldest sister Theo lives hours away with her husband, his sister Jessica is at college and his brother Herschel is in France fighting the “war to end all wars”. A young boy supervised by an absent-minded father is bound to have more liberties than the average pre-teen, and Sterling is no exception. His canoe building project occupies the living room floor. Free to roam the woods at leisure, Sterling has acquired a variety of unusual pets, including Poe-the-Crow and a family of skunks.
Most interesting, however, is Rascal, the newborn raccoon that Sterling’s dog Wowser found. Love at first sight strikes both Sterling and Wowser, and soon Rascal becomes a central figure in the North household. Sterling begins by feeding him milk through a wheat straw, but soon Rascal discovers the delights of “people food” and joins Sterling and his father at the dining room table. Like all raccoons, Rascal is curious and adept with his paws. He travels everywhere with Sterling, even sleeping with him at night.
Instinct is a powerful force, however. Although never trained by one of his own kind, he develops habits of his species, like cleaning his food meticulously before eating it. This may work well in the wild, but Rascal quickly learns that the sugar cubes he pulls from the covered bowl on the table will not survive washing. As he matures, other instincts awaken within him as well, and Sterling realizes that his beloved pet will never be truly happy confined to a house.
Sterling North’s memoirs of a special year in his childhood will entertain not only middle school readers, but younger children who will enjoy hearing the story read aloud. Sterling’s relationship with his father, though non-conventional, demonstrates deep love, loyalty and understanding. North skillfully melds together accounts of WWI, tales of Wisconsin in its pioneer days and the sorrow of family tragedy in this amusing yet touching story.
Jennifer Minicus is a mother and teacher currently living in Ridgewood, NJ.