Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Reading. Konigsberg.

I used to hang out in the children's section of Barnes and Noble, in the days before I had a job, sitting on the benches by the window, basking in the air-conditioning and drinking iced latt├ęs, warding off the advances of two-year-olds wanting to climb into my lap, reading stacks of magazines and mysteries. I would go back to the writers I used to read when I was growing up, Roald Dahl, Katherine Paterson, E. L. Konigsberg, both the old favorites, and the newer books. I have been reading E. L. Konigsberg for as long as I have known how to read, and I come back to her every so often when I want to be reminded of all the things I used to know but have since forgotten.

The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place reminds me a little of T-Backs, T-Shirts, COAT, and Suit (which I had read more than a decade earlier), in that it is about a young girl caught up in something unexpected, something that teaches her about how to fight for what you find important, even if you don't win, even if you find life is not fair and it doesn't always matter if you're right. What matters is that you cared enough to try, that you cared enough to fight, that even if you are only twelve years old you can do something, whether it is to march in protest or chain yourself to the towers which your uncles have spent over four decades building and which the city is about to pull down.

In The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler, the twelve-year-old Margaret Rose Kane's world is about to change. Her parents have left for a holiday without her; what she doesn't know is that their family is about to split apart. Instead of staying with her mother's uncles, as would ordinarily happen, she is sent to summer camp. Bright and articulate and uninterested in the typical activities that make up the summer camp experience, Margaret's sojourn at Camp Talequa is an unqualified disaster. Her bunkmates make her the butt and scapegoat of all their mischief, using her clothes to clog the shower, blaming a pool of vomit on her, generally making her life miserable until her great-uncle arrives with his dog, Tartufo, to rescue her.

But back at her uncles' home, Margaret Rose finds another tragedy waiting there. The three towers in the back garden which her uncles have constructed out of scraps of metal and ceramic and glass, dangling with ornaments of all kinds, have been scheduled for demolition by the city. (When I imagine the towers, I think of the Watts Towers in Los Angeles). Unable to bear the thought of her beloved towers being dismantled, Margaret goes into action, aided by Jake, the son of the woman who runs Camp Talequa, who has watched her humiliation at the hands of her bunkmates and her defiance of his mother.

Ultimately, the towers are saved, bought by a telecom company and moved to another part of the town. A neighborhood will spring up around these towers, a neighborhood to which the people who wanted the towers destroyed will move, the neighborhood where Margaret Rose's father will raise his family with his second wife. It is not quite the ending she hoped for, nor does her family come back to where it was before the summer began. Something we all learn too early, that the happy ending you have is not the happy end you imagined.

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