Book Review: Rascal

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Rascal is an autobiographical story about a boy growing up in a small American town during World War I,  in which young Sterling takes in a young raccoon as a pet.  It is exceptionally well written, receiving a Newbery Honor award in 1964. North’s wonderful depictions of outdoor experiences, detailed descriptions of Rascal’s behavior, and the warm affinity that grows between Sterling and Rascal have earned this book its classic status.  It is a wonderful boy book, with many companionable scenes between Sterling and his loving father.

For parents and teachers who wish to cultivate a Christian worldview in their young readers, the story should be considered with some caution.  First, there are no whole and healthy families depicted in the story.  Sterling’s widowed father, though kind, seldom offers guidance, but indulgently allows him to stay out until all hours, build his canoe in the living room, and lead a rather bohemian life. Sterling’s best friend, in contrast, lives in perpetual fear of his own father’s abusive anger.  The only marriage depicted in much detail is between Sterling’s aunt and uncle.  In this family his hardworking, saintly aunt, in worn but neatly mended sweater, quietly bows her head under the weight of her husband’s cruel joking.  None of these families represent God’s design for loving family life with a father and a mother.

Not only is the family not modeled well, but North shows religion in a negative light through his hilariously colorful depiction of the local Methodist pastor, a foul-mouthed, “terrible-tempered minister of the Gospel.”  The stories about Reverend Thurmond are undoubtedly based on true events, but readers may interpret Thurman’s hypocritical behavior as representative of genuine Christianity.

The story unfolds in the shadow of World War I, and near the end of the book Sterling compares the war to his practice of trapping animals.  He makes a “truce” with the animals of the forest, promising never to hunt them again.  This boyish gesture seems to reveal an underlying belief that humans and animals have equal status.  This view is at odds with the biblical teaching that God created humans to be the caretakers and rulers of the rest of creation (Genesis 1:27-28; Psalm 8:4-8).

North’s view of human equality with animals is not surprising, given the fact that elsewhere he expresses his support for evolution.  At the romantic high point of the story, when Sterling roams the woods alone with Rascal while camping near beautiful Lake Superior, he recalls a time when his dearly departed mother had

tried to explain the story of creation in the Bible as a means by which a primitive and poetic people sought to record the beginning of things… plants and animals had evolved from the simpler forms of life to the wonderfully complex flora and fauna of our present era.  And I had thought there was no one more gracious or knowing than my mother, and nothing more pleasant than the sound of her voice.  She seemed very close to me now as Rascal and I made our way up the branch of the Brule (92-93).

Later, Sterling asks his teacher wistfully if raccoons might evolve into humans someday, and she doesn’t laugh at his question.  This makes him feel she is “a very special person” (139).  These two highly-charged, emotional encounters with important women in Sterling’s life present the reader with an unsubtle, positive appeal for the theory of evolution, made more powerful because the appeal is emotional rather than rational.

The story is very well written and will be enjoyed by anyone who loves animals and the outdoors.  It will be especially attractive to boys, with its masculine-romantic view of nature and his bohemian life with his father.  However, North’s depiction of families, religion and the created order (especially the origin of life) are sometimes at odds with a biblical worldview.  Although it is written at an 8-12 reading level, Christian parents may want to wait to introduce this book until readers are old enough to read it with discernment.

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Publication Information: North, Sterling. Rascal: a Memoir of a Better Era. Dutton. 1963. ISBN: 0142402524.
Categories: 3 Stars, Age 12-16, Book Tree,, Honey For a Child's Heart, NEH Summertime Favorites, Newbery Honor, World Nifty 50
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Posted on October 23, 2009

2 responses to Book Review: Rascal

  • Kristina Johnson says:

    Very helpful review! These kind of boy books are important for me to find, but knowing about questionable elements helps me plan whether to hand it to them or read it aloud. Thank you!

  • Benecia Fowler says:

    Thank you for taking the time to write this review! Literary reviews abound, but reviews from a biblical worldview can be hard to find. God bless!

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