Monday, July 30, 2018

The View From Saturday by E. L. Konigsburg

Source of book: Audiobook from the library

We listened to E. L. Konigsburg’s Newbery winning book, The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankenweiler last year, and enjoyed it, so we thought we would try another of her Newbery winning books, this one some 30 years after the first. The View From Saturday was a hit with the kids, and a pleasant enough audiobook to travel by. 

The story is pretty simple. Four 6th Graders are selected by their teacher, Eva Marie Olinski, to compete in the Academic Bowl. She is not quite sure how she selected them, but they are all connected, as we find out throughout the story.

There are two parts to the story, essentially. The one is the story of the competition, which is told from the perspective of Ms. Olinski. The second consists of four stories told by the individual children, about an incident which deeply affected them, and also turns out in retrospect to be a link to the other children.

Noah Gershom starts it off with the story of a wedding at the retirement community his grandparents live at. He becomes best man unexpectedly after the son of the groom breaks an ankle. He also learns calligraphy, and gains an appreciation for some of the residents.

It also turns out that the groom at the wedding was Nadia’s grandfather. She spends the summer after the wedding rescuing and monitoring sea turtles with her grandfather and his new wife, Margaret, who used to be the principal of her school - and also Ms. Olinski’s best friend.

It turns out that said Margaret is also the grandmother of Ethan, who she ends up meeting. (They had attended the same school without becoming acquainted.) Ethan then tells of his meeting of a new and unusual kid at school, Julian Singh, an immigrant with a British accent. Ethan is wary of getting involved, but ends up helping Julian avoid bullies, and is eventually invited to the tea parties at the bed and breakfast Julian’s father owns.

Julian in turn tells the story of how Nadia’s dog was chosen to play a part in the school play, the bullies attempted to poison the dog, but Julian thwarted the attempt. He also turns down a chance to take revenge, opting for the high road instead.

There are even more connections than the ones mentioned. But the main connection that draws the children together - and causes Ms. Olinski to choose them - is their gravitation toward kindness.

At first, I found the way the narrative jumped around between past and present to be an annoyance. This was compounded by a technical issue. We ripped the CDs to a thumb drive, and three of the disks appeared to my player to be in the same directory, so we had to carefully select which track to play next. There were a few false starts before we figured things out. As things went on, however, the sequence of events became clear, and the overall design of the book emerged.

Overall, it was an interesting narrative. Plenty of humor, good characters, and ethical dilemmas which are resolved in a surprisingly mature manner by both children and adults.

There was a definite attempt at multiculturalism in this book, and it is mostly successful. It is also 20+ years old, and it reads that way just a bit. Also showing is Konigsburg’s own background. She was a New York Jew, like several characters, and treats Jewishness very much as a minority status. Julian Singh is a great character, and written well. But he is the only non-white child. Perhaps it is my own California bias, but that fact seemed just a little odd. On the other hand, it is plausible that this reflected the author’s experience. In any case, I did not find the book to be patronizing or stereotyping. Unless you count a British expat serving elaborate tea. And I find that to be charming in the extreme.

Just a couple of details that I found fun. First is that a winning question for the team involved the distinction between Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. I am a fan of both (and married to a fan of both - and particularly the original Tenniel illustrations…), so I knew the answer to the question right away. I suspect that too many have only seen the Disney movie, which draws elements from both books, and haven’t bothered to read the originals.

The second detail was Julian’s approach to a particular bullying incident. When the bullies snatch his backpack, and write on it in permanent marker, “I am a ass,” Julian changes it to “I AM A pASSenger on spaceship earth.” And of course, bullies would definitely get the definite article wrong. Just one of several fun responses that Julian, ever the optimist, comes up with.

As I said, my kids liked it, and I agree that Konigsburg does have a way with words and characters.

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