Near the end of Sterling North’s Rascal, Sterling and his aunt Lillie discuss what Sterling might want to be when he grows up. Aunt Lillie thinks Sterling’s deceased mother would have wanted him to be a writer. When he asks why, she says; “And then you could put it all down, the way it is now. . . You could keep it just like this forever.”
That is just what North has done. He has preserved for us a snapshot of life in an American World War I-era small town. I am writing this almost exactly 100 years after the events in this book. Daily life for Americans has changed more in those 100 years than for any people at any other time in world history. There are references throughout the story to activities and objects that were familiar to most people in 1918 America, but will be unfamiliar to most of today’s young readers. Finding out about some of these things will give you a better picture of the time in which Sterling grew up. We should learn from everything we read, but we don’t want to analyze the enjoyment out of his story.
Therefore, information for further research is organized by category in the order the tidbits are referenced so you have the option of orienting yourself to the time and place of the story before, during, or after you read.
Before you begin:
Read the dust jacket. Before I start a story, I like to know certain things about what I’m going to encounter. In a story such as Rascal, one thing I want to know is, “Is this a true story?”
My paperback copy doesn’t have a dust jacket, but in the blurb on the back it says, “Rascal is only a baby when Sterling brings him home to join the menagerie.” Sterling? That’s the author’s first name. Maybe this is a true story!
A note from the author after the title page says:
All of my friends in this book, both animals and human, were real, and appear under their rightful names.
A few less lovable characters have been rechristened.
Rascal was published in 1963. A quick internet search tells me the dates of North’s lifetime, November 4, 1906 – December 21, 1974. If this is a story about North’s childhood, it is taking place before 1920.
Discern the Setting – Stories usually make more sense if you understand the when and where. Sometimes an author comes right out and tells you at the very beginning. Sometimes you are left to infer the information for a time.
The time in which this story takes place is too important for North to leave us in suspense.
What is happening in the world in May, 1918?
How long has Sterling’s mother been dead?
Attention to Detail – An author seldom begins his story with details that won’t matter later. Begin reading slowly enough to get a picture in your mind of where and who he is describing.
Conflict – Although the word conflict might have an unpleasant sound, every story must have some sort of struggle in order for anything real to happen. A character might have conflict within himself. Perhaps he has a difficult decision to make (Man versus Himself). He might have conflict with another character (Man versus Man). Or, he could have a conflict with an outside force, such as the weather that threatens his safety, home, or crops (Man versus Nature).
Do we know of any conflict(s) by the end of the first chapter?
Rascal was a Newbery Honor book in 1964. The Newbery Medal has been awarded every year since 1922. It is given to “the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children published by an American publisher in the United States in English during the preceding year.”
At their website, you can look at the list of all of the winners and honor books.
Parents may want to know
From chapter 4:
My mother, before she died, had revealed a few simple facts about the earliest forms of life on earth, and had tried to explain the story of creation in the Bible as a means by which a primitive and poetic people sought to record the beginning of things.
This does not mean there is no God, she said, or that He didn’t create heaven and earth, darkness and light, and the seas and the land–yes, and millions of suns and planets, whole galaxies of distant stars. His spirit does move upon the face of the waters.
Then patiently, like the very good teacher she was, my mother had explained in words I could understand how the plants and animals had evolved from the simpler forms of life to the wonderfully complex flora and fauna of our present era. And I had thought there was no one more gracious or knowing than my mother, and nothing more pleasant than the sound of her voice. . .
It was rumored that in biology class we were to learn the facts of life that year. Most of us already had some misinformation on the subject, but I was very vague as to how little girls are constructed. However, being not-quite twelve, I was not in complete despair about my ignorance.
What did puzzle me however was how such a lovely, delicate creature as Miss Whalen, with lights in her hair and eyes, could possibly tell a mixed class how babies are made. Fortunately this would come much later in the term, and she would have many months to lead up to the subject by way of the lesser fauna.
No more is said on the subject.
Sterling discovers that someone has cut down one of his favorite old Royal Walnut trees. In anger, he writes on the stump, “DAMN THE MAN WHO CUT THIS TREE.”
Activities and Research
Writing or Narration
Chapter 1: Briefly describe Wowser in your own words.
Compare Sterling’s lifestyle to your own. Write a paragraph (or more) using the format suggested below.
Sterling ________________________, but I _________________________. Sterling’s father allows him to _____________________________, but my parents __________________.
You might include : “My parents would/would not allow me to build a canoe in the living room.”
Sterling’s father allows him to have a variety of interesting pets. All I have is a cat that is older than I am. He doesn’t care about shiny things, but he eats butter if we leave it out, and likes to lick the glue off of envelopes. Sterling spends a lot of time alone. I share a bedroom with two brothers, so I don’t get any time alone. Sterling is allowed to ride his bicycle all over town, and even out of town by himself. I can ride to the park three blocks away if I promise to use the crosswalk on the busy street. I am not even allowed to build with Legos in the living room, so I would never ask if I could build a canoe there.
Write a description of a camping trip or a campground where you have stayed. If you haven’t been camping, describe a place where you would like to go. Or, you could describe how you would build a tent in your bedroom.
Write a manual on how to care for the pet of your choice. Will your pet need special food? What kinds of accessories will you need? A cage, a doghouse, a leash and collar? Will it need to be brushed or clipped? Will you need to take it to the veterinarian for shots? Is your pet going to need daily exercise?
If you don’t happen to live where you could have the variety of pets Sterling has, choose one you would like to have and learn what it would eat, how you would have to care for it, what special equipment you would have to buy, and what it would be like to live with.
Chapter 1: North tells us that “ishkabibble” means “I should care.” Where did this term come from?
What is foxfire?
I was surprised to learn how important tobacco growing was in this region. This article even mentions Edgerton.
North says he is happy to have had four winters with his skates because after that, he was never able to skate again. He is referring to having contracted polio in 1922.
According to Sheila Terman Cohen’s Sterling North and the Story of Rascal, doctors told Sterling he would probably never walk again. As part of his self-imposed therapy, he swam at least a mile every day wearing a 25-pound brace on his right leg.
The muscles on his right leg would never return to full strength and left him with a slight limp. But the rest of his body became stronger than ever. Sterling was so pleased with his progress that he submitted his photograph to a body-building contest. He posed in such a way that his right leg was hidden behind his left so no one would see its withered appearance.
Find out about the history of Carnegie libraries. Is there one near you?
Old Fashioned Activity
Have you ever played Prisoner’s Base or Run-Sheep-Run as Sterling and his friends did? You can find the rules online, and there might be several variations. Be sure to agree on the rules before you start.
Bert Bruce ties his own flies for fishing. Investigate the art of fly tying.
Sterling also mentions different fishing methods throughout the story. If you have never fished, find someone who can show you at least one method. If this isn’t an option, check online for how-to videos.
At this time, the harness-making profession is threatened by the automobile. Try to imagine that in your town only the most wealthy citizens own cars, but many people have at least one horse. Where would the horses be kept? Would streets be maintained differently? How would your home be different if you owned a horse?
Do we still need leather workers and harness makers? Is there one in your area you could visit? Ask to watch someone working with leather.
Mr. Shadwick braided 6 strands of leather into a leash for Rascal. Look for a video or book on leather braiding to see what he was doing. You can also learn the techniques with other cheaper materials, such as heavy string or parachute cord.
Literature Rabbit Trails
Sterling says he was often alone in the house thinking, “long, long thoughts.” The quotations marks around “long, long thoughts” mean that he is quoting that phrase. A lot can be learned by following these quotes.
This one comes from a poem called “My Lost Youth” by Henry Wadsworth
Longfellow. The quote comes from the last two lines of each stanza of the poem which are:
A boy’s will is the wind’s will,
And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.
In the poem, Longfellow tells us that this is part of a Lapland song he
learned when he was a boy.
It wasn’t unusual for children who went to schools in America before
the second half of the 20th century to be familiar with classic poetry.
Memorization was still required, and many of them carried large
portions of poetry and stories with them all their lives. Find and read
Longfellow’s poem on line.
Sterling says Rupert Brooke’s war sonnets were among some of his favorite poems. Read at least one of his poems, such as “The Soldier.”
Read Alan Seeger’s poem “I Have a Rendezvous With Death.”
Both of these famous poets had already been killed in World War I when this story takes place. The poems were current literature, and would have been known to most Americans.
North tells us that his sister Jessica was a “talented linguist and poet.” When she was 21 years old, she published this short, sweet poem in St. Nicholas Magazine.
I had a little tea party
This afternoon at three.
‘Twas very small—
Three guests in all—
Just I, myself and me.
Myself ate all the sandwiches,
While I drank up the tea;
‘Twas also I who ate the pie
And passed the cake to me.
Though her brother’s fame eventually overshadowed Jessica’s, you may still read her poems by searching for her online.
The name Poe-the-Crow tells us that Sterling was familiar with Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, “The Raven.” Are you?
Read Sidney Lanier’s “The Marshes of Glynn.”
Sterling doesn’t quote all of John Keats’ “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer.” Find and read the entire poem.
Sterling says the stream he is fishing could rival Isaak Walton’s River Dove. This is a reference to Walton’s Compleat Angler, a book published in 1653. It is available free on kindle. https://www.amazon.com/Compleat-Angler-Izaak-Walton-ebook/dp/B004UJ91GG/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1548520013&sr=1-3&keywords=compleat+angler and at Gutenberg.org.
At the fair, the whistle of the balloon man lured children as surely as the pipe of the Pied Piper. Find and read the poem “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” by Robert Browning. You might also be interested in finding out the background of the story.
Sterling has been reading Over the Top by Arthur Guy Empey – Empey was an American who volunteered for the British Army during WWI before the United States entered the war. After he was wounded, he started writing about the war. This book, and others by him, are available free on kindle. Because of the violence and realism, this would not be a good book for young children without a parent’s approval.
You can also read it free on Project Gutenberg. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/7962/7962-h/7962-h.htm
Sterling is also reading Westward Ho!, a book by Charles Kingsley, written in 1855. This book is also available free on kindle. https://www.amazon.com/Westward-adventures-Burrough-glorious-Elizabeth-ebook/dp/B00848XQG0/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1548529549&sr=1-1&keywords=westward%2C+ho
And it’s available at Gutenberg.org.
I haven’t read this one yet, but haven’t read any reviews that would suggest anything inappropriate for young readers. However, pre-reading by parents is always suggested.
In the evenings at Uncle Fred and Aunt Lillie’s house, Aunt Lillie read to the family. She was reading “an endless serial” in a magazine. Here is a short article on the history of the serialization of novels. https://booksonthewall.com/blog/serial-novel-a-brief-history/
Did any of our favorite classics begin as serials?
Try to make it a habit not to skip over unfamiliar words. You may be missing much of the author’s meaning. If you don’t want to stop and grab a dictionary in the middle of the story, ask permission to underline unfamiliar words in pencil so you can go back later and look them up.
Learn the meaning of any of these words that aren’t already familiar.
glassies and steelies
ham (“Rascal, the wonderful little ham he was . . .”)
The people of Brailsford Junction are keeping track of the movement of U.S. troops in France. At the time this chapter takes place, the Central Powers and the Allies are moving toward the Second Battle of the Marne, which would take place in the middle of July. Look online for maps of the movements of the armies involved. How much longer will WWI last?
North’s boyhood home is now a museum. If you can’t go there to visit, you can take a virtual tour here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=33ZBWxUk7B
The tour guide in this video shows you cheese boxes like those from which Sterling says he got the ribs for his canoe.
We also get to see a bicycle such as Sterling would have had, and the highchair Rascal used.
War Gardens were also known as Victory Gardens. Americans were observing heatless, meatless, and wheatless days. These measures were efforts to conserve resources for the support of soldiers and the civilians of war-torn Europe. Read about rationing and special “do without” days. What would you need to do differently in order to observe a heatless, meatless, or wheatless day?
What is the history of Mulligan Stew?
Who was Barney Oldfield?
Infantile paralysis is another name for polio. Find out what polio is. What are its symptoms? How is it spread? Is there a vaccine? When was the vaccine discovered?
How old was Sterling’s father when he died?
One of Joe Hanks’ jobs is to pump the pipe organ at church. If you haven’t seen how a pump organ works, find out if there is one you could visit in your town. If not, you can find a video on the internet.
Sterling’s family employs a washer woman who takes their dirty clothes away and brings them back clean and pressed several days later. This story takes place about 20 years before a fully electric washing machine was invented and sold to the public. Watch a video or read about the history of the washing machine.
Find a picture of an early 1900s Oldsmobile that could be the model the North family owned. What did a driving costume, including motor goggles, look like at the time?
What was the Black Hawk War?
At the beginning of the chapter, Sterling refers to the Battle of Soissons, which took place on July 18-22, 1918. The Allies suffered over 100,000 casualties; 12,000 were Americans.
What were the Liberty Bonds Sterling had bought?
Read about the Spanish Influenza pandemic of 1918. Sterling says more people in his town died of the influenza than died in WWI! The first paragraph of this chapter gives a brief bit of information on what was a world-wide phenomenon.
Sterling’s family gets news that the war is over, but it turns out to be premature. Here is an article on the False Armistice. https://www.centenarynews.com/article/the-false-armistice—7-november-1918
You may also search this site for articles on the true Armistice Day, or search other sites.
Now that the war is over, Herschel is finally able to tell his family where he has been. Find out about the battles in which he participated.
Sterling pinpoints his location for us in this chapter.
Though in this and other autobiographical stories, he chooses to call his hometown Brailsford Junction, he actually grew up near Edgerton, Wisconsin. Find Edgerton on a map of Wisconsin.
Radisson, who called Lake Superior a “sea of sweet water,” was the explorer and French fur trader Pierre-Esprit Radisson. He lived from the late 1630s to 1710.
The quirks and eccentricities of Teddy, the Shetland pony, were built into his nature like the winds and storms of the Shetland Islands. Where are the Shetland Islands? How long have the people on these islands been using their ponies for work?
A Stutz Bearcat, the automobile Theodora was driving, is a beautiful piece of machinery. Find a picture on the internet.
What does a Norfolk suit look like? Would your friends admire that style?
“There’s A Long, Long Trail A-winding” was written in 1915 and became popular with American soldiers heading to Europe during WWI. It’s likely that Sterling was listening to a 1917 recording by John McCormack. Find this audio version and listen to Rascal’s favorite song.
Search the internet for recordings of the nightingale and the whippoorwill.
Sterling mentions the wild rice that had covered the shallows of Lake Koshkonong. There are still many places in Wisconsin where wild rice may be harvested, but it is heavily regulated.
What is “French leave?”
At the fair, the steam calliope was playing “Come Josephine In My Flying Machine,” a song that was written in 1910. Find a recording and listen to the song.
What is a steam calliope?
Herschel asks Sterling to send him some Paris Garters because their ad claims, “No metal can touch you.” Look for images so you can see what they look like, what they’re for, and why it would be important that no metal can touch you.
Many of our favorite snacks and specialty foods, items we take for granted, were invented and marketed in the late 19th and early 20 centuries. Look up the history of Cracker Jack
Though the Ferris wheel is no longer a new invention by the time this story takes place, it is another invention, like Cracker Jack, that was introduced at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.
Find a video of someone demonstrating starting a Model-T Ford?
Sterling is impressed that the Saturday Evening Post magazine was founded by Benjamin Franklin. It does have an interesting history.
At the Saturday Evening Post website, you can go to the Archives and look at the cover art from any year the magazine was published. https://www.saturdayeveningpost.com/
There are articles on the history of the Post as well as the development of the art and the artists.
Uncle Fred teases Aunt Lillie by playing a song on his Edison talking machine. We know the machine as a phonograph. At least, people my age do. You can read about the invention of this machine and watch a video here. http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1999143_1999210_1999211,00.html
Or research for yourself, of course.
The song Uncle Fred plays to tease Aunt Lillie is “Why I Picked a Lemon In the Garden of Love,” written in 1907. The lyrics lament that, when in a garden surrounded by peaches, the singer managed to pick a lemon. You may find and listen to the song online. The videos I found also show an old-fashioned phonograph in use.
Sterling’s aunt and uncle are alerted to the False Armistice by a signal on the party line on their telephone. Ask your parents or grandparents about party lines. Can you find anyone you know who remembers having one. Find out what they were.