26 April 2011

Konigsburg’s ‘The View from Thursday’

In writing recently about E.L. Konigsburg and in sharing fond memories of her work, I was reminded that I’ve fallen behind: since I read her first novels for young people (Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth and From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler), she’s written many, many more. My happily nostalgic mood made me eager to pick up one of her newer books. I settled on The View from Saturday, with which Konigsburg won her second Newbery Medal, three decades after her first (for Mixed-up Files): the book promised an auspicious renewal to my intermittent rediscovery of a cherished author.

Moreover, I had just spent a few days with two of my godchildren, a little older perhaps than those whom Konigsburg depicts in The View from Saturday but very much in the spirit of her young characters: smart, funny, interesting, and just a little bit off-beat. So it was that the first thing that struck me was how much Konigsburg likes children — or at least, the smart, funny, off-beat ones. She writes about and for the kinds of kids who develop a sudden, overwhelming enthusiasm for sea turtles (or Michelangelo’s sculpture, or calligraphy, or baseball), who know magic tricks and the difference between hanged and hung, kids who (as one character in this book puts it) still ask “Now what?” instead of “So what?”

I was one of those kids, and so are Jeremy and Ilana; such kids are Konigsburg’s ideal readers. Part of the comfort — and the joy — of reading her books is the growing realization that, no matter how other kids treat us as oddballs, we are not alone. And a really cool lady is telling us a story that is, in some ways, about us.

This far into Konigsburg’s career, she has the assurance necessary to attempt a complex narrative structure, to write in several voices, and (as she explains in a note at the back of my paperback edition) to fuse several stories that were originally written as separate. I underscore: other writers could not do this, especially when aiming at younger readers, and others would waste a great deal of time calling attention to the achievement. Not Konigsburg. For example, one of her young narrators, Nadia, steadfastly refuses to use contractions, but Konigsburg trusts that her readers will care enough to notice.

Her ostensible subject is a sixth-grade team in a New York State Academic Bowl, and I dare say most writers would devote most of the story to the preparation and the contests. Konigsburg takes her own time getting there — which has the happy result of a more suspenseful, faster-paced account of the final round. What interests her is how the characters get where they’re going, more than what they do when they get there.

This philosophy extends to every part of her story-telling. There are, throughout the book, suggestions of what might happen to these children when they’re older: in particular, there’s an incipient romance between two of the children, Nadia and Nathan. Another character, Ethan, has traits that suggest he may eventually be gay. But Konigsburg doesn’t need to spell any of that out: these are kids, and where they are right now is already plenty exciting. Clearly, she is not the kind of adult who spends her time asking children what they’re going to be when they grow up.

Her sympathy with children as they are is, I suspect, the key to her enduring success, and the influence she has wielded over a couple of generations of readers like me. She appreciates us, she observes us, and she locates the stories that will be meaningful to us. When she writes about Nadia’s complex reaction to her parents’ divorce, or Julian’s even subtler reaction to his mother’s death, we don’t feel as if Konigsburg’s a therapist or a melodramatist, or talking down to us. It’s all matter-of-fact and respectful.

Kids are always on the lookout for grownups who are kindred spirits, and Konigsburg (perhaps because she is such a grownup) gets that, too. She gives us two adult characters, the teacher Mrs. Olinski and the parent Mr. Singh, who have problems of their own but who are wise, patient, and caring toward the four teammates. There seems to be a hint of romance between the grownups, but Konigsburg doesn’t spell that out, either: after all, this is a book about kids.

Konigsburg’s sense of humor is equally remarkable. Nathan’s narrative voice is hilarious, yet Konigsburg has the presence of mind to recognize that more than one chapter of it would probably exhaust most readers. (Fact, as Nathan might say.) No matter: she has plenty of good material, and she sprinkles it throughout the book. This makes her writing immensely appealing to adult readers (or to this one, at any rate).

The View from Saturday suggests that what other people consider trivia can in fact lead to glory, that the misfits among us have greater potential than other people recognize, that friendships make us stronger, and that the journey really does matter. While it’s probably best enjoyed by readers who already know at least some of the answers to the Academic Bowl questions, I recommend it without reservation — and yet again, I count myself lucky to have met its author.

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