Saturday, April 20, 2013

To E.L. Konigsburg, with love and pluses

E. L. Konigsburg, who passed away today at age 83, wrote a lot of books with long titles. T-Backs, T-Shirts, COAT, and Suit. Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth. The names were long enough, obscure enough, that I felt I had to read the books to find out what all the parts meant. The stories went in directions I never would've predicted, like down into Jericho Tel, where dwelt the late Tallulah Bankhead, an actress I knew about only from an episode of I Love Lucy. I loved her books because I never knew what I'd find in them, and it would probably be something new.

But, probably like most of us, I loved her best for her 1967 novel From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. When you're ten, and you're starting to wonder just what you could manage if adults weren't there at every step, a story of two kids (spoiler alert) successfully running away and managing to be fairly comfortable feels very worth reading. When they're normal kids who argue deliciously over grammar, who want their situation to be dramatic but also want clean underwear, who get an A and wonder where are the pluses, that's even better. Every line of the book is infused with personality, with observations on life that have stayed in my consciousness for the (wow) twenty years since I first read the book.

I reread it for the zillionth time this evening, and the view from this particular Saturday is different from the one my younger self saw. What innocent characters, not to realize how frightened their parents are. But also, what an innocent book, one in which two actively sought children can hide in a public place. Mrs. Frankweiler (just slightly younger than Mrs. Konigsburg was at her passing) seems prouder of the two runaways than she is worried for them. As a child reader, though I had no intention of emulating Claudia and Jamie (I lived in northern New Jersey, but it would never have occurred to me to hop a train to Manhattan by myself), I enjoyed indulging in a story that told me it was possible.

Claudia wanted to "come back different" from her adventure. She did, and so did I.

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