Themes and Characters
The parallels between emerging America and young Sterling North enhance the significance of the year that the boy and the raccoon spend together. Their conflicts with Sterling's sister Jessica and the townspeople, especially the Reverend Thurman and Slammy Stillman, precipitate a loss of innocence. Sterling tries to maintain his ties with Rascal during their several wilderness outings, but nature's call proves too strong and Rascal's desire for a mate outweighs his wish to remain with the companion of his first year. As they separate, the boy displays an ability to come to terms with change and to face the future: "And I paddled swiftly and desperately away from the place where we had parted."
Sterling and his pet raccoon Rascal are two of the most memorable figures in literature written for young people. Sterling, without the guidance of a mother and subject only to the lenient supervision of his distracted father, is an independent youth with a remarkably mature sense of responsibility. Yet he takes joy in youthful activities such as fishing, swimming, and tramping through the woods.
Sterling's resourcefulness is striking. The many tasks and the constant concern over money that fill his life bring out qualities that will serve him well as an adult. He does not fret about wanting a canoe; he builds one himself. He does not complain at having to cage Rascal; he finds ways to make the captivity more bearable.
Rascal proves as resourceful as his owner. Able to break time-honored instinct, he forgoes his food-washing ritual at one point so as not to lose a second sugar cube. Rascal's discoveries lend a sense of adventure to the book. Each new food, each new treasure that enchants the raccoon gives the narrator an opportunity to demonstrate the intelligence and fascination of young creatures.
The relationship between Rascal and Sterling provides the, basis of the plot and sets the theme. The author's memories of their shared adventures— from catching fish side by side to standing up to the threats of the bully Slammy Stillman—convey a keen appreciation for the harmony that can be found in nature.