Book Review: RASCAL (Sterling North, 1963)

Rascal: A Memoir of a Better Era, a Newbury Honoree book, is a tough book to review. Not because it’s bad; it isn’t, by any stretch. It’s a beautifully written story, in fact, but that’s part of the problem: it does a great job of delivering a terrible message.

Rascal is the memoir of North’s experience as a young boy who, in the spring and summer of 1918, “adopted” and raised a baby raccoon. Its bittersweetness is evident in its very first scene, showing the extent of humankind’s “dominion” over the natural world when young North rightly recognizes that the litter of babies is too young to be without their mother. Failing to capture her, however, he and his friend decide to kidnap Rascal as a “prize” for trying — the first in a series of wrongheaded decisions.

Reasons to read Rascal

First let me say that as a writer, I adored the way the story unfolded and the attention to detail in North’s word choices and structure. The book accurately captures the intelligence, mischief, and alacrity that all young raccoons have, and in that, there’s a lot of humor.

There’s also a lot to be learned about how to have a relationship to the natural world. North describes his own relationship to his surroundings, in particular a nearby lake, in loving detail, mirroring the times I’ve had the opportunity to explore creeks or swamps from my sons’ points of view (while grateful for their ability to do so). He observes a mother duck protect her young from his raccoon; he appreciates a concert of whippoorwills’ song.

The book also nicely juxtaposes North’s relationships with his pet and with the adults around him. Some adults help; others threaten harm, not to be mean, but because an uncaged raccoon threatens the crops and livestock they depend on for food and livelihoods, at a time when Americans lived much more closely to the land than they do now.

North’s solutions — a leather collar and leash, a cage — are only temporary, as he comes to realize a wild heart was never meant for constraints. By the end of the book (spoilers!) North  — bereft throughout the story at the departure of his older brother for the front lines of WWI — has come to realize that some things you love, you have to let go.

His maturation comes only at Rascal’s expense, though, and that’s where I have trouble with the story.

The law of unintended consequences

A review I originally wrote for this book, for another website, tried to be nice. I wrote: “In Wisconsin 100 years ago, a closer link between humans and nature meant that it was easier for Rascal to stay true to his wild nature, so that by the time he is set free at the book’s end, both he and North have grown into themselves.”

The harsh fact is: dumping a wild animal off in a habitat with which it’s unfamiliar is a recipe for death. “The forest” is no more natural to a raccoon than “the city” is to a human. GPS and Google Maps have cut us off from the disorientation we’d otherwise feel in a new place, looking for sources of shelter, food, and water.

And, we don’t (as a general rule) compete with one another for those resources the way wild animals do. There’s a reason why rehabbers rely on “soft releases” for raccoons, foxes, and other wild orphans: it provides those key resources in a way that allows the animals to get to know a new place, including its existing residents, on their own terms.

“It was a different era,” you would say, and you’d be right, except that 100 years later, people are still capturing and keeping wild babies as pets. Several of them are living out their lives as nonreleasable, human-habituated animals at Izzie’s Pond and other rescues.

Learning the right lessons from Rascal

Rascal has the distinction of having been made into both a movie and an animated children’s series in the 1970s, which, once imported to Japan, dubiously created an entire generation of Japanese children who wanted a pet raccoon.

Of course, raccoons aren’t native to Japan. As a result, they have no natural predators there. So when those sweet babies grew up and were “released into nature,” on top of the other problems with being released into an unfamiliar environment, they… became an invasive species.

The key takeaways for this book, then, are:

  • Respect wild families and don’t kidnap wild babies from their mothers.
  • Understand other species’ needs and instincts, and learn to coexist rather than assert human dominance:
    • Raccoon-proof homes and animal pens with the right materials. (This is known as exclusion.)
    • If wildlife does manage to move into your house, humanely evict them. (Trap and release doesn’t work!)
  • If you find a wild baby alone, wait to see if Mom comes back for it.
  • If she doesn’t, find a licensed wildlife rehabber to raise it.

I do recommend Rascal as a good middle-grade read. Just be sure you’re having the right conversations with your kids about wildlife and the natural world!

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