I think I have a harder time than most people when my favorite writers pass away. I was sitting on our front lawn during a yard sale when I read in the newspaper that Madeleine L’Engle had died. I had to excuse myself inside so I could have a private cry about it. Brian Jacques’ passing still stings because I never expected him to leave me. Ever since last June, my heart seizes up whenever I see Nora Ephron’s name. Did you know they’re making a documentary about her life for HBO? I hope they do her justice.
E.L. Konigsburg passed away this last Saturday. She was 83 and she had published as recently as 2007. (I hope that I’m still publishing in my seventies.) I loved many of her books, such as Jennifer, Hecate, Macebth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth and The View from Saturday, although I am most grateful for From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. I am not alone in this sentiment. From the Mixed-Up Files has accolades out the wazoo, including that shiny Newbery Medal adorning the cover.
It deserves every bit of praise bestowed upon it. I reread the story earlier this week, when I heard of her passing. Years later, it holds up as being funny and sly and absolutely nailing the feeling of wanting to escape from the injustices of your own life. Someday I hope to read the book to my own children and that I’ll have to explain to them why they’ll never be able to hide out in a museum, thanks to modern security practices. (Sorry, kids. Even in the nineties, I felt that loss.) Everybody should read this book.
But here’s why I feel that I may be the book’s biggest fan. Ten-year-old Gretchen found a spirit animal in twelve-year-old Claudia Kincaid. I was a straight arrow kid, burdened with the responsibility of being the eldest child. While I only have the one younger brother, he is smart and confident and cheap, just like Jamie. In fact, if I have any competition for biggest fan, that spot would go to Phillip in a heartbeat. When I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art two years ago, Phil was still on his mission and being there without him felt incomplete. He is the Sir James to my Lady Claudia.
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler has imprinted itself on to my consciousness. There are so many things in the book that I believe to be true.
“But lying in bed just before going to sleep is the worst time for organized thinking; it is the best time for free thinking.”
“’You’ll never have a better chance, Lady Claudia. Go ahead. Do it.’”
“Some people spend all their time on a vacation taking pictures so that when they get home they can show their friends evidence that they had a good time. They don’t pause to let the vacation enter inside of them and take that home.”
“I keep telling you that often the search proves more profitable than the goal. Keep that in mind when you’re looking for something in my files.”
Phillip and I would listen to the book on tape repeatedly. Certain inflections of a phrase still pop into my head now and then. I can’t hear someone mention a specific monetary amount without mentally saying, complete with all the ups and downs of Jamie’s proud crowing, “Twenty-four dollars and forty-three cents.” If anyone asks me where I came from, I reply, “Mother always says that I came from heaven.” I’ve so often claimed that there are only two ways to really know a person—either by living with them or playing cards with them—that I plum forgot the source until I came across it in the book a few days ago.
I think that Claudia Kincaid grew up wanting to be like the legendary Basil E. Frankweiler. I’d like to, too, but I’d also like to emulate the legendary E.L. Konigsburg. Thank you for your words, E.L. I hope you left this earth different.