L. Konigsburg's new heroine dares to be differentMean cabinmates, eccentric family members, a surprisingly artistic handyman, and one very unique teenager these are but a few of the many intriguing people readers will meet in The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place, the new novel from two-time Newbery Medal winner E.L. Konigsburg.
Konigsburg, whose writing for young readers has spanned three decades, is the beloved author of classics such as From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and The View from Saturday. Her latest book is the story of teenager Margaret Rose Kane, a character who made a brief appearance in Konigsburg's previous book, Silent to the Bone.
"After I finished Silent to the Bone, Margaret Rose's character kept haunting me," says Konigsburg. Throughout the creative process, she had written much about the background and history of Margaret Rose, the half-sister of the book's protagonist, but since the material didn't work well with that particular story, Konigsburg left it out. Now, four years later, Margaret Rose is having her say. In Outcasts, we find her at a sleep-away camp, the first she has ever attended. While she's initially excited about the experience and, in fact, chose the camp after she "sent away for thirty-six brochures, sent away for thirty-two tapes, and watched a total of nineteen all the way through," Margaret Rose quickly realizes that spending an entire summer at camp is not something that she prefers to do. Her difficulties begin when she "prefers not to" exchange bunks with one of the girls in her cabin. This is the first time she uses the phrase, but hardly the last. Margaret Rose also "prefers not to" participate in arts and crafts, sing camp songs and go on nature walks. Her lack of interest in participating in any camp activities infuriates the director and earns her the label "incorrigible" from the camp nurse. While her antics are indeed cause for frustration, they are not without merit. Interestingly enough, they also bring to mind the actions of another, more famous non-conformist, Bartleby, the main character in Herman Melville's classic story "Bartleby the Scrivener." Konigsburg does not hide the fact that her character is meant to resemble Bartleby, and in fact mentions him by name in several instances in the book. Literature is not the only cultural element that Konigsburg alludes to here. She also explores the definitions of art and history in society. After surviving just two weeks at camp, Margaret Rose is rescued by a great-uncle who comes to her aid and takes her to his house, where three spiraling towers of discarded metal, clock-parts and glass adorn the backyard. Although Margaret and her great-uncles (two brothers who have been building such towers for 45 years) find the spirals beautiful, several new neighbors are unable to see their magnificence. When a community renovation initiative is passed by the local homeowner's board, the towers are slated to be demolished. Margaret Rose, however, refuses to let this happen, and in her quest to save the towers, shows readers that art is not merely the stuff of museums, and that history is more than places and dates.
Through her efforts to save the towers and her various antics at camp, we see multiple sides of Margaret Rose's character. She has, at times, a smart mouth, but she's also devoted to her great-uncles and is a resolute non-conformist among her peers. Margaret Rose is like no other, and this is perhaps the theme that Konigsburg most wants readers to understand. During her experience teaching adolescent girls (Konigsburg was once a science instructor), she found a common thread among all of her students. "Regardless of background, every child is searching to find a unique identity," she says. "They are struggling between conforming to a group and being accepted as an individual." Some people, like Margaret Rose, are able to understand their uniqueness early on. Others take years to learn that following the pack isn't always the right path. Art, history, literature. The search for identity. These are just a few of the many threads running through Konigsburg's terrific new book. The author's ability to weave these themes (and several more) into a story with such a unique narrator only proves that Konigsburg herself (like Margaret Rose!) is definitely like no other.