30 June 2011

Are You There, E.L. Konigsburg? It’s Me, Margaret

My too-long-delayed exploration of the more recent work of a favorite author, E.L. Konigsburg, continues apace, landing now on a pair of novels aimed at somewhat older readers. Where the books that earned Konigsburg my childhood admiration didn’t deny the existence of grownup themes, those weren’t the focus of, or even particularly relevant to, the stories she was telling. But sex makes an appearance in Silent to the Bone (2002) and The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place (2004), and suddenly Konigsburg is navigating waters that I might more readily associate with the works of Judy Blume than with those of the author of From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Konigsburg proceeds with her customary taste and sensitivity, while accommodating the evolving concerns of her audience. Kids today are savvier than her original readers (namely, this one) were in 1968, but Konigsburg is ready for them.

Both novels are set in the fictitious town of Epiphany, NY (also home to the protagonists of The View from Thursday), and concern members of the same, somewhat dysfunctional family, Margaret Rose Kane and her half-brother, Connor. Silent finds Connor leaving childhood behind as his best friend is accused of abusing a baby (with plenty of sordid whispers attached to the incident): it’s up to Connor to find out what really happened and to clear his friend’s name, a task made all the more difficult because his friend, traumatized, is unable to speak for himself. And yes, there’s an older woman involved, an English au pair whose sexual charms work on both boys, in ways for which they’re unprepared.

As Connor sets out to solve the mystery, he’s abetted by his half-sister, a technogeek loner who’s cooler than thou on all matters except the father they share. We see Margaret as a girl in Outcasts, set during the summer when her parents’ marriage fell apart. The extraordinary ability of little girls to cause each other pain — which comes into play in Konigsburg’s first book, Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth — is vividly depicted in the first chapters of Outcasts, in which Margaret spends a miserable few days in a rigidly managed summer camp. She’s soon rescued by her eccentric uncles, only to discover that their life’s work — “outsider-art” constructions that resemble the famous Watts Towers — are about to be destroyed.

As she fights to save the towers, Margaret finds an ally in Jake, the son of the summer-camp director, himself an artist and a grownup. His sex appeal is such that, to avoid complications with the girls at camp, he pretends to be an idiot, but Margaret sees through the pose quickly enough, and though she’d be unlikely to admit it as such, she develops a crush on him.

This is kid stuff, compared with the more intense sexuality that informs Silent, and yet the alert reader will note that, having “lost” Jake to another woman, Margaret as an grownup is single, with no known prospects. How great was her heartbreak? Should adult readers see her as a distaff counterpart to the narrator of Hartley’s The Go-Between?

Konigsburg doesn’t spell out the answers: she remains a model of discretion, to the point that I wasn’t certain how the boys in Silent responded to their English siren: a physiological reaction, an action, or what? In the other books I’ve read, Konigsburg keeps sex offstage, but here it plays an important role: a motive, but also a mystery to be solved later, after the book is done. Not for her the angst and explicit prose of other “young-adult” authors, but she does demonstrate an ability to address that audience honestly and forthrightly.

In many other regards, the Kane books fit squarely in Konigsburg’s oeuvre. These are smart, even smart-alecky, kids with curious intellects and offbeat enthusiasms. Margaret consciously mimics Herman Melville’s Bartleby when she declines to participate in summer-camp activities: I didn’t read “Bartleby” until I was in college, but Konigsburg’s characters tend to be more precocious than I. And if young readers are inspired to learn more about British slang, or the Watts Towers, or Melville’s fiction, or the psychology of trauma — as Konigsburg’s previous books may have inspired them to learn more about Michelangelo’s sculptures and about sea turtles — it’s all to the good.

There’s a big world out there to be explored, Konigsburg suggests, and she’s always encouraged us to step forward into it — when we’re ready, responsible, and with our wits about us.

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