Welcome to 'Fine Lines', the Friday feature in which we give a sentimental, sometimes-critical, far more wrinkled look at the children's and YA books we loved in our youth. This week, writer / reviewer / blogger Lizzie Skurnick rereads 'From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler', E.L. Konigsburg's 1967 novel about extremely unaccompanied minors run amok at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Claudia knew that she could never pull off the old-fashioned kind of running away. That is, running away in the heat of anger with a knapsack on her back.
I miss New York. Not the New York somewhere over to my left. A New York before The Squid & The Whale brought divorce to the Museum of Natural History. A New York before nannies got groped; a New York before private-school girls intertwangled lustily on beds in some benighted plan to rule the school. It was a New York that had room for a notepad-toting minor to spy unaccompanied on people through dumbwaiters; a boy to wander Chinatown having adventures with a cricket; teenagers to contend with a genie in a mystery at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Not a world where children playact adult dramas, or unhappily contend with the chaos adults leave in their wake. It's a New York that keeps adults perpetually at shoulder-level, briefcases and purses jostling, while the children, front-and-center in the frame, get up to whatever children get up to.
The children in question are one Claudia and Jamie Kincaid, Greenwich-residing, grammar-school-aged siblings. (Re: In an earlier Fine Lines comment thread, an admitted pedant pointed out that FTMUFOMBEF is technically middle-grade, not YA. Since as far as I can tell, these categories exist primarily for schoolteachers, booksellers, and award-givers, Fine Lines will from now on define "YA" as any book read in one's own company from the time one learns to read to the time one pays one's own rent.) The children's getting-up-to entails one very long, unauthorized stay in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where they come upon a statue of an angel which may or may not be carved by Michelangelo — and this, as they say, changes everything.
Claudia Kincaid, architect of the above scheme, is a child of her own mind in all the best ways, quite unlike the mini-me adults passing for precocious nowadays. (Have readers cottoned on yet to how much I hate the conceit of the preternaturally-wise, sophisticated child who wryly keeps adults in line? Gilmore Girls notwithstanding, I *hate* that child.) Forgoing hot-fudge sundaes for weeks to finance the venture, Claudia's choice of hideout is the very reflection of her particular personality:
She didn't like discomfort; even picnics were untidy and inconvenient: all those insects and the sun melting the icing on the cupcakes. Therefore, she decided that her leaving home would not be just running from somewhere but would be running to somewhere. To a large place, a comfortable place, an indoor place, and preferably a beautiful place. And that's why she decided upon the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
Her choice of her brother Jamie, a third-grader, is equally practical: he is a total tightwad and in possession of a transistor radio. Claudia's practicality, which also includes poking into the family garbage for such useful bits as a train pass with one free ride and scouring the AAA tour guide, extends so far she almost forgets why she is running away in the first place:
....But not entirely. Claudia knew that it had a lot to do with injustice. She was the oldest child and the only girl and was subject to a lot of injustice. Perhaps it was because she had to both empty the dishwasher and set the table on the same night while her brothers [Preach it! —Lizzie.] got out of everything. And, perhaps, there was another reason more clear to me than to Claudia. A reason that had to do with the sameness of each and every week. She was bored with simply being straight-A's Claudia Kincaid. She was tired of arguing about whose turn it was to choose the Sunday night seven-thirty television show, of injustice, and of the monotony of everything.
More on that in a minute. That interpolater is, of course, Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, in the form of a letter to her lawyer, Saxonberg, who is also, we eventually find out, the children's grandfather. In the grand epistolary-meets-omniscient tradition, Frankweiler is in possession of more knowledge that Claudia, both about the Angel she's sold to the museum, and about Claudia herself.
But more about that later! First, the Met.
It will be generally admitted that the scenes depicting Claudia and Jamie's initial stay at the Met are the most sublime realizations to have ever penetrated the shelves of man. After filling their violin and trumpet cases with clothes, hiding out on the back of their schoolbus, then sneaking off to ("How can you sneak off to?") catch the 10:42 to Grand Central, they spend the day at the museum choosing the antique bed upon which to sleep, then hide out into the bathrooms until all all the staff has left:
...she lay there in the great quiet of the museum next to the warm quiet of her brother and allowed the soft stillness to settle around them: a comforter of quiet. The silence seeped from their heads to their soles and into their souls. They stretched out and relaxed. Instead of oxygen and stress, Claudia thought now of hushed and quiet words: glide, fur, banana, peace. Even the footsteps of the night watchman added only an accented quarter-note to the silence that had become a hum, a lullaby.
And! The! Automat! And! Bathing! In! The! Fountain! And! Brushing! Your Teeth! In! The! Quiet! And! Washing! Your! Clothes! Until! They're! Gray! Chock! Full! O! Nuts! Gah!!!!! I could go on for 1,200 words just about the meaning of Claudia eventually choosing macaroni, baked beans and coffee over "breakfast food" for breakfast at the Automat. However, I have to get around to the Angel, the statue of dubious provenance which becomes, in its mysterious beauty, the after-the-fact reason Claudia finds for her escape in the first place. (As Frankweiler rails in an aside to Saxonberg: "Are photo albums of your grandchildren the only pictures you look at? Are you altogether unconscious of the magic of the name of Michelangelo? I truly believe that his name has magic even now; the best kind of magic, because it comes from true greatness. Claudia sensed it again as she stood in line. The mystery only intrigued her: the magic trapped her.)
Because, as Claudia begins to realize, she has come to the museum not only because she is sick of being the old Claudia, but because she wants — needs! — to return to Greenwich a different Claudia, a Claudia who has bigger concerns than keeping her whites and colors separated, brushing her teeth, and correcting her brother's grammar: "An answer to running away, and to going home again, lay in Angel," she thinks.
...."The statue just gave me a chance...almost gave me a chance. We need to make more of a discovery."
"So do the people of the museum. What more of a discovery do you think that you, Claudia Kincaid, girl runaway, can make? A tape recording of Michelangelo saying, 'I did it?" Well, I'll clue you in. They didn't have tape recorders 470 years ago."
"I know that. But if we make a real discovery, I'll know how to go back to Greenwich."
"You take the New Haven, silly. Same way we go here." Jamie was losing patience.
"That's not what I mean. I want to know how to go back to Greenwich different."
Jamie shook his head. "If you want to go different, you can take the subway to 125th Street and then take the train."
"I didn't say differently, I said different. I want to go back different."
..."Claudia, I'll tell you one thing you can do different..."
"Differently," Claudia interrupted.
"Oh, boloney, Claude. That's exactly it. You can stop ending every single discussion with an argument about grammar."
"I'll try," Claudia said quietly.
Did you catch that (sic) "boloney"? Agggg! I am getting ahead of myself. But that is how the children wind up at the home of Mrs. Frankweiler, whom they are convinced holds the secret to the statue, as of course, she does. Now, I am going to do that annoying thing where I leave off telling the mystery, not because I care about spoilers, but because I don't want to tramp all over your re-read. (Although I am just going to point out that Claudia takes a bath in Mrs. Frankweiler's black marble bathtub etc.!!!) And, when she learns the secret, like (forgive me) that bath...
....Claudia's excitement flowed not bubbled. I could see that she was a little surprised. She had known that Angel would have the answer, but she had expected it to be a loud bang, not a quiet soaking in. Of course secrets make a difference. That's why planning the runaway had been such fun; it was a secret. And hiding in the museum had been a secret. But they weren't permanent; they had to come to an end. Angel wouldn't. She could carry the secret of Angel inside her for twenty years just as I had. Now she wouldn't have to be a heroine when she returned home...expect to herself. And now she knew something about secrets that she hadn't known before.
Claudia's childhood innocence isn't some walled-off tomb, and it doesn't end unceremoniously when it's tragically shattered by some awful experience. Indeed, the vision of childhood in Mixed-Up Files is that of a museum at night, filled with secrets to uncover, and the freedom to find them unencumbered and alone. When Claudia finds the answer to just one of those secrets, she's not only "different" — she's become, like the Angel, a singular entity with her own history, her own mystery. And when she leaves the museum, she's also leaving her childhood, like some abandoned violin case filled with gray clothes, triumphantly behind.
• • • • •
Hi all! We had almost no takers and no winner for last week's challenge, which involved a green marble egg chochke and an appalling dearth of accompanying information. I'm becoming convinced it might have been an English edition of It's Not The End of the World, or something, because you know how wild the English are about those marble green eggs. Too bad, but the challenge is still open to a winner at any point, so if the answer occurs to you later, egg me away.
Moving right along, this week's challenge:
What's the book with a redhead on the cover that is about a relationship and occurs ENTIRELY in one-line paragraphs, basically? I think it's followed by a flip book where the boy also gets to discuss the relationship.
As always, answer in the comments below or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Be first or be worst!
A special treat for this week's winner: you will also receive a copy of the 75th anniversary edition of Little House in the Big Woods! (Only Continental US for that one, sorry. The Fine Lines pocket is linty and filled with holes, for the most part.) You can also email wishes, comments, suggestions, complaints, and epistolary novels to the email above. Rest assured, I file each and every email in a row of big cabinets and label them for maximum difficulty.
Earlier: A Gift Of Magic: Totally Psyched
•Are You There Crazy Psychic Muse? It's Me, Lois Duncan
•The Secret Garden: Still No Idea What A Missel Thrush Is
•To All My Fans, With Love, From Sylvie: No Telephone To Child Services
•The Westing Game: Partners In Crime
• The Moon By Night: Travels With Vicky
•My Sweet Audrina: The Book Of Sister And Forgetting
•The Long Secret: CSI: Puberty
•The Cat Ate My Gymsuit: A Pocket Full Of Orange Pits
•The Witch Of Blackbird Pond: Colonies, Slit Sleeves And Stocks, Oh My!
•Are You In The House Alone? One Out Of Four, Maybe More
•Jacob Have I Loved: Oh, Who Am I Kidding, I Reread This Book Once A Week
• Then Again, Maybe I Won't: Close Your Eyes, And Think Of Jersey City
•My Darling, My Hamburger: I Will Gladly Pay You Tomorrow For A D&C Today
•All-Of-A-Kind Family: Where I Would Put Something Yiddish If I Thought You Goyishe Farshtinkiners Would Farshteyn
•Island Of The Blue Dolphins: I'm A Cormorant And I Don't Care
•Little House In The Big Woods: I Play With A Pig Bladder Like It's A Balloon
•The Grounding Of Group Six: Have Fun At School, Kids, And Don't Forget To Die