Form and Content
In Rascal: A Memoir of a Better Era, Sterling North created a story of both innocence and emerging maturity by recalling a year of his life as a young boy. The book details the lively adventures of an eleven-year-old Sterling and his pet raccoon, Rascal, during the last year of World War I. It was a simple time, but it was also a time of crisis in American life. Together, Rascal and Sterling enjoyed many pleasant adventures as Sterling faced the difficult task of growing up. North’s account of this era is divided into chapters that detail the months of the year that he and his pet spent together. Each chapter recollects the specific and important highlights of their lives as well as significant events in history.
The author’s memories of this time are both pleasant and thoughtful. Beginning with the simple excursion of two friends fishing on a May evening that led to the capture of a baby raccoon, they follow a year of new responsibility and maturity. The book chronicles the relationship that grew between boy and pet, the wonders of exploring and discovering, and the heartbreak of decisions and separation.
Rascal becomes a narrative account of the people and events that shaped that memorable year of North’s life. He gives attention to both the local and national events of the time. Summer vacation, the start of school, and the Irish Picnic and Horse Fair are aligned with the worries and casualties of war, the influenza epidemic, Armistice Day, and the eventual end of the war. Along with the joys and freedoms of childhood, the difficulties of growing up are remembered. A frequently absent father and a recently deceased mother cause Sterling to contemplate the questions of life alone. He must collar and ultimately cage Rascal by himself. As the year closes, Sterling realizes that he must face the future and deal with changes that are inevitable. Rascal chooses to return to nature, and Sterling emerges from their association resourceful and capable of moving into adulthood.
The action of the novel takes place at the end of World War I, the point at which America was losing its innocence and developing a mature awareness of its international role. Set in a rural Wisconsin town, Rascal draws parallels between events in the world at large and the experiences of an eleven-year-old boy who shares his own loss of innocence and developing maturity with a devoted companion, his pet raccoon. North most directly signals the parallel between the American experience and that of his youthful self when the autobiographical narrator puts away his muskrat traps on Armistice Day:
I burned my fur catalogues in the furnace and hung my traps in the loft of the barn, never to use them again. Men had stopped killing other men in France that day; and on that day I signed a permanent peace treaty with the animals and birds. It is perhaps the only peace treaty that was ever kept.
On one level, Rascal is a simple story about a boy and his pet. The story's primary appeal lies in its realistic depiction of the relationship between Sterling and Rascal, his pet raccoon. In the literary tradition of Julie of the Wolves, The Yearling, and Incident at Hawk's Hill, North's narrative presents a child and an animal who, because they both lack a conventional family structure, become family to one another. Rascal lives in relative isolation from raccoons and other wildlife, and Sterling is raised, without a mother, by an often preoccupied father. In the course of a year, these two characters share affection, adversity, and adventure, and North's description of their experiences together emphasizes Sterling's growing awareness of the world around him. Through his relationship with Rascal, Sterling learns to defend his beliefs and to accept inevitable change. North explores the classic theme of man versus nature as he depicts Sterling's coming of age; the boy emerges from his encounter with nature prepared to live as a courageous, resourceful adult.
The literal maturation of...
(The entire section is 1,018 words.)