Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4147
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg was first published in 1967. Since then, a few changes have been made at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Admission is no longer free, and the fountain in which the Kincaid children bathe has been removed. Museum...
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- Teaching Guide
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg was first published in 1967. Since then, a few changes have been made at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Admission is no longer free, and the fountain in which the Kincaid children bathe has been removed. Museum staff has been asked so many questions about this novel that they devoted an entire issue of their publication MuseumKids to it; it is commonly referred to as the “Mixed-Up Files Issue.” The novel won the Newbery Medal in 1968 and, though he has been asked repeatedly, the author says he will never write a sequel.
Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler sends a file to her lawyer, Saxonberg. This file contains the following story, since he will not pay close enough attention to it when he is with her; he is too busy thinking about his grandchildren and other things. It also contains some changes to her will, which she is sure he will understand once he reads the file, which contains all the pieces of this story, put together like a jigsaw puzzle.
Claudia Kincaid is not fond of messy or uncomfortable things, so when she decides to run away she looks for someplace neat and comfortable and beautiful—such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. She has saved enough money for herself and one other person to go with her, and she chooses Jamie, the second youngest of her three brothers. He is generally quiet, sometimes good for a laugh, and he saves his money. She does not tell Jamie about her plan until she has enough set aside to make her plan a reality, which takes long enough that she almost forgets why she is leaving. She is leaving because, as the oldest, she is being treated unfairly. She has to unload the dishwasher and set the table for dinner—on the same night—while her brothers do nothing. Claudia is leaving because of the injustice and the monotony. Her life is so predictable, and she is tired of being the straight-A student who is stuck in the same old routine every night. After saving her allowance for more than three weeks, twelve-year- old Claudia and nine-year-old Jamie will run away by taking a train into the city. Since she plans on coming home again after her family has developed some “Claudia appreciation,” she also has to save money for their return trip train fare. New York City is not so very far away; in fact, her father commutes from their home in Greenwich to the city every day. The crimes committed against Claudia certainly warrant a longer trip, but she loves the city and knows it is a good place to hide. She has planned well and sacrificed buying her favorite hot fudge sundaes so they will have enough money for their trip.
One Saturday Claudia is doing a chore she hates—emptying all the trash cans in the house—but discovers a train ticket with one ride left on it which the cleaning lady must have thrown away as trash. Because she and Jamie are young enough to ride for half fare, they will not have to purchase tickets to travel. Claudia decides they will leave on Wednesday and asks Jamie to sit by her on the bus so she can tell him about her plan. He is not thrilled at the summons and asks why she cannot pick on one of her other brothers. After she shares her plan, though, he appreciates being the chosen one.
Claudia tells him they are leaving on Wednesday because it is music lesson day. Not only can they pack their clothes in their book bags, but she can use her violin case and Jamie can use his trumpet case. When she asks Jamie how much money he has, he is hesitant to answer. When he finally tells her he has $24.43, Claudia knows she chose the right brother (for she only has $4.18). She also discovers the running card game Jamie and his friend have on the bus is actually her brother’s primary means of income—because he cheats. Claudia says she will give him a paper filled with all the details of their trip, which he must destroy after reading.
Jamie finds his detailed list on Tuesday night and carries out Claudia’s instructions exactly. The next morning they get on the bus as planned, and they sit in the back seat. When the bus arrives at school, Jamie and Claudia duck down and try to go unnoticed by both the kids and the driver. Their plan works, and soon the bus is traveling back to the bus parking lot. Once the driver leaves, the stowaways prepare to leave the bus and head for the train station. Claudia hears a terrible clanking sound, as if someone is walking in a chain mail suit. She turns around to look at Jamie for the first time and sees his pockets are so weighted down with pennies and nickels that his pants are riding low. They have their first row, and then Claudia remembers they must not keep acting as if they are still at home. When she tells him they must get on a train for the city so they can get to the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Jamie is appalled at the “sissy” plan. He wants to at least hitchhike to the city, but Claudia tells him that is not safe. On their way to the station, Claudia mails a letter to her parents, telling them she and Jamie are leaving home and not to contact the FBI. On their twenty-eight mile ride, Claudia appoints Jamie treasurer and Jamie decides there is adventure enough to be had at the Museum. When they arrive in Manhattan, they are a team united, ready to face the challenges of the city.
Their destination is forty blocks away, and their first Manhattan argument occurs. Claudia wants to take a taxi, then settles for a bus ride costing twenty cents each; however, Jamie has final say over their (his) money, and they walk. He uses his compass to steer them on the proper course. The odd pair does not get noticed in the bustle and movement of the city. They arrive at the entrance, and a guard clicks his little machine when they enter. They never count how many leave, though, so the children are confident their plan will work. On any given Wednesday, Metropolitan Museum of Art has 26,000 visitors (a thousand of whom are school children) who visit its twenty acres of displays and space. With a quarter of a million visitors a week, surely two children can stay hidden in such a throng.
After they check their bags for the day, Claudia and Jamie eat downstairs at the snack bar; the food is expensive, though, and they are still hungry. For the rest of the day, the siblings plan for their first evening in the museum. Claudia wants to sleep in a bed, for she prefers things neat and clean; Jamie, on the other hand, likes things complicated and wants to find something more adventurous. They compromise on a bed Claudia finds—a bed in which some famous woman had been murdered. The plan to remain unnoticed by the guards at the end of the day is to go into a bathroom stall and stand on the toilet with the door unlatched but nearly closed. It works. After the museum is cloaked in darkness (about six o’clock at night), they find the bed and fall asleep quickly, despite their hunger.
Because they are not yet familiar with the guards’ morning routine, they get up early and stow their bags (but not all in one place, so they will have some of their belongings even if some of them are discovered). Jamie nearly gets caught in the bathroom, but he enjoys the danger. Both are hungry, so they leave the museum to find some cheaper food. When they re-enter, Claudia decides that they will learn everything about everything in this museum, one wing at a time. Jamie is not thrilled, but Claudia gives him first choice (thinking he will choose the Arms and Armor wing). In hopes of boring Claudia out of her plan, Jamie chooses the Italian Renaissance. They soon find themselves in a line with a thousand other people to see something important, though neither Claudia nor Jamie knows what it is. It is a small, marble, carved angel. The line moves quickly, which is just fine with Jamie; Claudia, however, is entranced by the beautiful statue and wants to know more about it and plans to check the New York Times the next day, since there was a reporter with a camera there today.
This wing is too crowded, so they go to the Egyptian wing and join a class of students listening to one of the museum guides. They are learning to be inconspicuous (much easier for Claudia than Jamie, who loves to stand out in a crowd) because they do not want to call any attention to themselves, so they join the fringes of this class. Jamie, of course, is the only one to ask a question at the end of the presentation. Claudia reminds him of what inconspicuous means.
The next day Claudia picks up (steals) a newspaper someone leaves behind at a table in the museum. She skips right to the article about the statue. It is called Angel, and it is thought to have been carved by Michelangelo. The museum acquired it for a mere $225 in a gallery auction. That gallery purchased it from the collection of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, who bought it from an art dealer in Bologna, Italy, before World War II. The Frankweilers were a rich couple with no children; Mrs. Frankweiler still resides in the area. Whether the statue is eventually authenticated as Michelangelo’s or not, it is still a fine acquisition for the museum. The Kincaid siblings determine to find a way to authenticate this statue.
If Claudia had not been so focused on finding this article, she might have see a smaller article on the front page of the paper, announcing that two Kincaid children have been missing from their Greenwich, Connecticut, home since Wednesday. They try to get a better look at the angel, but the crowd is even bigger today and they barely catch a glimpse. Instead, they join another school tour in the American wing and learn all about colonial American arts and crafts.
After three days of such living, Claudia insists they must find a way to wash their dirty clothes. They stuff some of their soiled clothing in their pockets and wear the rest (as outer layers only) to the laundromat. Their white items are now a dismal grey, probably because of their red and navy socks, but at least they smell clean. Jamie wants to go to the television department at Bloomingdale’s, but Claudia insists they must go to the library to do the research they need to prove Michelangelo carved Angel. Claudia assigns Jamie to the books with pictures while she tackles the reading. After about twenty pages, Claudia gets discouraged and joins Jamie’s research. Jamie has learned about “lost” art and is confident he now knows enough to authenticate the statue if he can ever get close enough to it. He is unsure if the museum will take his word for it, though.
They spend some time playing in Central Park and stock up on pretzels and peanuts before returning to their temporary home, since the museum does not open until one o’clock on Sunday and they will be hungry before they can leave. As Jamie is perched in his spot in the bathroom, he overhears two guards say they will be moving the statue so more people can view it. Jamie is instantly aware that he must warn his sister not to come out of hiding yet, but all he can do is will her to stay put.
When they do eventually meet again, Claudia knows about the statue being moved, as she saw it in its new home, lit with a dim light. This is the night Claudia has planned for them to bathe. While she cannot stand their unwashed state a moment longer, Jamie is content but does not argue. They go to the ornate fountain near the expensive museum restaurant, a fountain which has carved dolphins bursting out of the water. They shed their clothes and bathe in the cold water. Jamie makes an amazing discovery—there are coins at the bottom of the fountain. They collect $2.87 worth of coins, as much as they can hold in their hands.
After they put on their pajamas and enjoy a snack, they visit the statue once more. As they prepare to go to sleep, Claudia tells her brother to think about the statue and whether or not he thinks Michelangelo could have carved it. Jamie tries to keep his thoughts on the statue, but soon he is thinking about home and asks Claudia if she misses it. “Not much,” she answers. Jamie wonders if they should feel guilty for not feeling more homesick, but Claudia assuages his conscience by telling them it is their parents’ fault for preparing them too well to live on their own.
They wake up a bit later than usual, and it feels like Sunday, even in these unusual circumstances. They decide to go to the Middle Ages collection and pray in front of the stained glass windows. Claudia asks forgiveness for stealing the newspaper, which makes this officially Sunday. As they are standing once again in front of the statue, they hear a guard approaching. They both automatically hide and then wait for ten minutes before leaving their hiding place. They look quietly at the former pedestal on which the statue rested before the crowds descend upon them, and Claudia notices something impressed into the velvet cloth which had been under Angel. Jamie remembers having seen that same imprint in some of the books he studied in the library. The siblings are certain they are on the verge of an important discovery as they hide under the pedestal until they can go into the library bookstore and make sure of what they had seen. Claudia is feeling as if the statue and their quest might be even more important than their running away from home.
The book Jamie looked at in the library is also in the museum bookstore. Right on the cover is the same mark they saw on the velvet fabric, Michelangelo’s stonemason’s mark. Claudia and Jamie celebrate by taking a bus to the automat where they have been eating their meals; Jamie (the keeper of the funds) approves of the unnecessary expenditure when Claudia reminds him all they need to do to increase their cash is take a bath. As they eat, they discuss what they should do with the information they have discovered. Jamie wants to call the newspaper, but Claudia is more sensible and does not want them to get caught living in the museum. Her plan is to rent a post office box, send a letter to the museum, wait for the museum to contact them for help, and become heroes.
Jamie suggests they can be heroes twice if they go home, but Claudia is adamant that nothing will have changes if they go home now. She says she did not “run away to come home the same.” She is convinced that their finding this information will raise them from the ordinary to the extraordinary. She intends to type the letter and goes to an Olivetti store with a public typewriter outside of it. On Monday morning the two of them rent a post office box and mail the letter Claudia had painstakingly typed. Upon reflection, they decide to find someone to deliver the letter directly to the museum. As they hover near a class of students, the Kincaids are mortified to discover that it is Jamie’s third-grade class. Once they recover from their shock and fear, they realize this is the perfect cover for their mail delivery. Jamie will tell them he is from this class in Greenwich but not give his own name. Once he delivers the letter, they leave the museum immediately.
They do their laundry again on Tuesday before they check their post office box. It is empty. Rather than go back to the museum, the brother and sister take a tour of the United Nations building and enjoy it. Later, the Kincaids check their post office box and are thrilled to see a letter from the museum. The letter says they have long known of the mark on the bottom of the statue and explains why this is not a definitive sign that the great Master carved the statue. They would appreciate any other clues they might have to offer and thank them for their interest in Angel. The letter is so polite that Claudia can do nothing but cry. Jamie tells her they can go home now, but Claudia wants to know “how to go back to Greenwich different.” Not differently, different. She wants to be different when she goes back.
Jamie gets in line to purchase their train tickets home, telling Claudia she is never satisfied, that she ends up “wanting to know everything.” Jamie heads to the ticket window, and Claudia follows him slowly, knowing she is not yet ready to go home. As Jamie requests their two half-fare tickets, Claudia interrupts and says they want to go to Farmington, Connecticut. Jamie takes her aside and asks why they should go there. Claudia reminds him this is the home of Angel’s previous owner, Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and she has a hunch. Jamie is struck by that, since Claudia is a person of plans and preparations, not hunches. Jamie turns around and does something out of character for him—purchases their tickets to Connecticut without first asking the price.
This, says Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler to Saxonberg, is when she enters the story.
After the taxi ride (and tipping their driver seventeen cents), the pair is broke; but they are at their destination, a mansion which appears to be another museum. After mentioning their interest in the Italian Renaissance, the children are admitted by the butler into Mrs. Frankweiler’s unusual office, one entire wall of which is file cabinets. The lady of the manor, dressed in white lab coat and pearls, finally turns and acknowledges their presence by asking if they are the missing children from Greenwich. She shows them their pictures in several papers and scolds them for worrying their parents. They ask her about the statue, but she gives them nothing. The old woman is still sharp and tries to get them to tell her where they have been staying. It does not work, but she invites them to lunch and is confident she will hear their story.
When they go to wash, Claudia finds a huge, black sunken marble tub and cannot resist the temptation to bathe in it. Jamie’s ablutions are minimal and he talks with his hostess while they are waiting—and he inadvertently tells her where they have been staying and that they are broke. Mrs. Frankweiler says she might exchange a ride for some information, but Jamie says Claudia makes the plans and he just keeps the money. When Claudia does finally appear, she tries to get information about Angel from its former owner. She is not successful, and she is not mollified by the offer of a chauffeur ride home. For Claudia the adventure is not yet finished, and she continues to ask for information regarding Angel and Michelangelo. Mrs. Frankweiler is an eccentric old woman, and she admires the girl’s spirit. She also wants to “help her see the value of her adventure.” After she takes the children back to her office, she makes a bargain with them. The answer to their question is in her files, but they must find it for themselves—in one hour—without getting any of her files out of order.
After making a sensible list of important words to look up, the children scour the files but to no avail. With only six minutes remaining, Claudia is ready to cry until she is prompted to remember Bologna, Italy, the place where the statue was acquired. When they look in that file, Mrs. Frankweiler (who has secretly been watching them) knows they will find the truth. Claudia discovers a very old, handwritten paper placed in a glass frame. On one side is a sonnet written in Italian and signed by Michelangelo. On the other side is a sketch of something very familiar. It is Angel, and Claudia cries at the beauty of it all. Mrs. Frankweiler appears and, as they talk, tells them she won the statue in a game of poker. Jamie is quite interested in whether or not she cheats, but she says she never cheats when the stakes are high because she is “too important for that.” Jamie wonders why she has not sold the sketch and made “a boodle,” but the woman explains that Claudia understands, as she, too, knows the value of a secret. She needs the secret more than the money.
Jamie asks how she knows they will keep her secret. Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler makes a deal with the children. She knows money is important to Jamie, so she is going to leave the sketch to Jamie in her will, knowing that if he speaks about it she will write him out of it as easily as she wrote him into it. She knows Claudia will not tell because it is the secret which is important to her. She will go home changed, for what she sought was not adventure but something which made her different. In exchange, the children must tell her the details of their adventure.
Claudia tells her hostess that she should give the sketch to the museum so they can discover for themselves that Angel is authentic, but the woman is adamant. She has known what she knows for twenty years, and at the age of eighty-two years old she is satisfied with her own research and is not in the mood to learn more. The discussion is over, and the children must now tell her about their adventure. While Jamie and Mrs. Frankweiler play cards, Claudia narrates their story into a tape recorder, interrupted occasionally by questions from her hostess. (Perhaps it is because she was distracted by the story that Jamie beats her at cards and wins thirty-four cents.)
Saxonberg, who was told about the children’s arrival, had called the Kincaids. Mrs. Frankweiler barely convinces them to let them stay overnight. She made them a promise of a Rolls Royce ride home, and she never cheats when the stakes are high. While Jamie tells his story into the tape player (and after much fiddling with the buttons), the old woman takes Claudia on a tour of the house and lets her choose the room she will sleep in that night. The next morning, the missing children are driven home. Jamie touches and pushes every knob and dial in the limousine, much to the driver’s dismay. One of the buttons is the intercom, so he is able to hear their conversation.
Claudia wonders why Mrs. Frankweiler sold the statue. Jamie responds that she is “tight,” but Claudia tells him she could have made much more money on it and did not do so. She could also just have placed the small statue anywhere in the house and never let anyone know about it. Claudia thinks she finally sold it because a secret is no fun unless someone knows you have it. They plan to come back to visit Mrs. Frankweiler without telling anyone, and they plan to treat her as their grandmother without telling her that is how they feel about her. That will be their secret. The children are reunited with their family, and Saxonberg is there, as well.
The letter to Saxonberg ends with the news that she is leaving the drawing of Angel to his grandchildren, Claudia and James. Now she has a secret from them—that her lawyer for the past forty-one years is their grandfather. She also plans to donate a few more items to the Metropolitan Museum, though the city has had to increase security in recent days. It appears they discovered a violin case in a sarcophagus and a trumpet case a few days later. Both were filled with “gray-washed underwear and a transistor radio” and were placed in Lost and Found. No one has claimed them.