Monday, June 04, 2007

Reading. Konigsberg.

My childhood holidays were often spent in New York, where my grandfather spent most of his time, or in Taipei, where he spent the rest of the time. When I think of New York I always think of wintertime, of bare trees along the avenues wrapped in twinkling lights, of the Russian Tea Room and ice skaters on the rink in the shadow of that giant Christmas tree of Rockefeller Center. I remember the living room of my grandfather's apartment, with its leather couches and marble-topped table, the mirrored wall that reflected my five-year-old self and the lights outside the windows. And I remember visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where I have spent so many hours wandering through the halls. (Even now, after all these years, I still get lost in those endless rooms, one opening into another, and then another, drifting from the Dutch masters, past the musical instruments, into the annex of modern art).

I can't remember when I first read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, but I have loved it for a long, long, time, and I think of it when I find myself in rooms full of centuries-old furniture arranged behind velvet ropes with little plaques telling us which famous king or queen or statesman slept beneath those elaborately carved canopies and brocade draperies. I feel a sneaking sense of envy for Claudia and Jamie, who run away to New York City and spend a week living in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, sleeping in a sixteenth-century bed that had been the "scene of the alleged murder of Amy Robsart, first wife of Lord Robert Dudley, later Earl of..." (Leicester). I remember eating lunch in the palm-shaded restaurant by the fountain where Claudia and Jamie took their baths (and collected spare change for food and other necessities of life). I remember those galleries of Egyptian treasures unearthed from ancient tombs where the children joined another school trip to learn about mummies.

My New York is a decade older than the one the Kincaids ran away to; the automat where they ate cereal and cheese sandwiches had disappeared, and my allowance was somewhat more generous than fifty cents a week. (Now, of course, fifty cents wouldn't buy a bottle of water). And I was an only child; who could I take with me when I ran away from home, beside my stuffed animals? The story isn't so much about the running away as it is about Claudia's need for something that is entirely her own, that isn't about her role in the family as the eldest, the straight-A student, the good girl. She needs, as Mrs. Frankweiler sees, to have a secret. In order to return home to Greenwich she has to be able to return a different person. But she brings her brother Jamie with her; she shares her secret with him. They become a team, sharing money, sharing a bed, sharing the search for the truth about the angel statue that leads them to Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and her secret that becomes theirs.

Konigsberg, E. L. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Dell, 1977. pp 38, 149.

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