Book Review: Rascal

Rascal by Sterling North
Rascal by Sterling North

Rascal by Sterling North is a delightful tale about an 11 year old boy who raises a baby raccoon. A 1964 Newbery Honor Book, this book is based off the author’s real life year with a raccoon. Sterling is out with his friend in the woods when he scares a raccoon family and one baby is left behind. He keeps this baby, Rascal, and raises it. The boy’s mother has died, leaving just the boy and his father, who is a lawyer and is gone all the time. The book takes place in 1918, near the end of World War I.

Sterling is alone most of the time and Rascal and the other pets on the farm serve as his companions. He takes Rascal everywhere with him, and they have many adventures. Rascal sleeps with Sterling and helps Sterling fish. The family goes on vacation for two weeks and Sterling and the boy spend the entire time playing in the woods while his father works. He is building a canoe in the living room (hard to imagine these days kids getting away with that) and basically takes care of himself. As Rascal grows, however, he gets in trouble with the neighbors for eating their crops.

When Rascal is around a year old, the boy makes a decision to release him back to the wild, so he won’t be shot by the neighbors. He paddles the raccoon far away and watches him as he meets a female and leaves.

Like Adam of the Road, this book has much historical value. It speaks of a time where kids had to entertain themselves and played in the woods all day long. A time when kids were routinely left alone and had to feed themselves. A time where having a pet raccoon was no big deal. A simpler time, indeed.

There is one part of Rascal (the very beginning) where my kids and I almost quit reading. It’s how Sterling got the baby raccoon. Basically, they come across a raccoon family hiding. The mother climbs a tree, and Sterling and his friend decide to chase the mother raccoon up the tree. One boy climbs the tree and cuts down the limb where the mother raccoon is hiding. She falls and runs off, but only 3 babies follow her, leaving the 4th behind who could have died if Sterling hadn’t have raised it. This part was cruel and hard to read as the boys didn’t really care — all Sterling wanted was a pet raccoon.

If you can get over the part of how he gets the raccoon, you won’t be disappointed by the rest. Overall, Rascal is recommended for the story of a lonely boy and his pet raccoon, which you’d be hard pressed to find such a relationship these days.

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Gilgamesh the Hero

Gilgamesh the Hero
Gilgamesh the Hero

The Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest recorded story in the world.  Composed by the Sumerians (later the territory would be Babylon) between 3200-2700 BC, this story is about a real king who ruled in Mesopotamia.  Carved on 12 stone tablets, this tale has all the elements of a great story.

Gilgamesh the Hero is retold by Geraldine McCaughrean for kids.  We meet Gilgamesh, a king unloved by his people for always going to war and putting his people to work on huge building projects for his main city, Uruk.  He is strong and powerful.

One day Gilgamesh meets one just as strong and powerful, a man named Enkidu.  Deadlocked in a battle, the two become best friends.  Gilgamesh, eager for adventure and fame, decides to hunt down a monster named Huwawa.  Reluctantly, Enkidu follows and Huwawa is defeated.

Ishtar, the goddess of love, notices Gilgamesh in this battle and asks him to marry her.  Gilgamesh refuses, knowing Ishtar has a history of disposing of her lovers.  Ishtar, upset at the spurn, releases the Bull of Heaven upon Uruk.  Both Enkidu and Gilgamesh kill the Bull, but it does considerable damage to the city beforehand.

For killing the Bull of Heaven, Enkidu is struck down by the gods and eventually dies.  Gilgamesh is distraught and afraid of dying himself.  He mourns for his friend and sets out on a quest to find Utnapishtim, a man who has immortality since the flood of the world.

Utnapishtim discourages Gilgamesh on this quest but says if he can stay awake without sleeping for 7 days and nights he will grant him immortality.  Gilgamesh cannot.  Instead, Utnapishtim offers him the Plant of Life, a plant that will make him young again.  Gilgamesh retrieves the plant from the bottom of the sea, only to have the plant eaten by a serpent.  Gilgamesh returns home, a changed man, no longer concerns with enlarging his borders or building monuments.  And the people love him for it.

Gilgamesh settles down, has children, and discovers a new immortality–he will live on through his sons.

So many nuggets in this book.

On immortality, Utnapishtim says “Is the rainbow any less beautiful because it’s short-lived?  Or because you can’t grasp hold of it?  Perhaps it is beautiful expressly because of that (it’s short lived).”

Gilgamesh:  “Why live if not to make a mark on the world?”

On children:  “Children.  That’s the shape of happiness.  A little hand inside yours.  Someone who thinks you’re as much a hero for killing a cockroach as a dragon.  What good would it do to live a million years unhappy?”

Urshanabi:  “Do things you can look back on with pride.  Run with the baton, then pass it on!”

Utnapishtim:  “I’ve had time to learn the important things are few.  A wife, contentment, memories, peace.”

A story every one should know.  It has a flood story as well (like most ancient cultures in the world).  Great for kids and adults.  Great lessons on what’s important in life.  Great lessons on friendship as we see Gilgamesh and Enkidu.  Can’t recommend enough.