The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place by EL Konigsburg, 296 pp RL 5
EL Konigsburg is a master at pulling together seemingly disparate threads to illuminate what will become a milestone event in her characters' lives. An author of a fantasy novel has the luxury of using fantastic plot elements, like a boy who is born with wizarding powers and suffers years of cruel treatment at the hands of his guardians, treatment that allows him to shine that much brighter when he is given the chance, not to mention his abilities with a broomstick, to detail the specialness of her characters. EL Konigsburg's stories, rooted in reality, manage to take commonplace childhood events, like being sent to camp and mean girls and mix them, like an artist mixes paint colors, into a rich, revealing story that allows her characters to shine and glow in their specialness while also standing squarely in a firm plot of reality that might possibly be inhabited by any reader at almost any time.
Like From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler and the mysterious edge of the heroic world, The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place centers around a work of art (or two). However, unlike the other two books, which mention imaginary works by known artists, Outcasts revolves around an imaginary work of Outsider art that brings to mind Watts Towers which were built between 1921 and 1954 by an Italian immigrant named Sabato Rodia. The outcasts of the title are Hungarian immigrants, brothers Alex and Morris Rose, who bought their house and began constructing the towers in their back yard some forty-five years before the story begins in the summer of 1983. Konigsburg sets the stage for this period with a time capsule from sometimes narrator, twelve year old Margaret Rose Kane, who tells us that this was the year Sally Ride became the first woman in space, the year Ma Bell was broken up into several independent, low-cost phone companies and also the year the FCC authorized Motorola to begin testing cell phone services.
Margaret, who adores her great uncles and spends large amounts of time with them, is sent to summer camp for four weeks while her parents, both professors at Clarion State University in Epiphany, go on a dig in Peru. Margaret is shocked not to be included in the trip and equally surprised that she has not been given the option to stay with her beloved great uncles. In light of this, she puts all her efforts into selecting the best camp. Despite her efforts, she ends up at a camp run by a tight laced woman who refers to herself as "we" and "us" and in a cabin with six alums who decide to pull every prank they know on her. This leads Margaret to respond, "I prefer not to," to every activity, winning her the name Bartleby, from the Herman Melville story "Bartleby the Scrivener." The name is awarded by Jake Kaplan, camp janitor and handyman who is also an artist and college age son of the camp director. His sympathy for Margaret and her plight grows when he sees the way his mother treats her and her Uncle Alex, who comes to retrieve her. Jake offers to drive them back to Epiphany out of kindness and is awed by the towers and anxious to spend more time with the family and their works of art, offering to paint a rose on the ceiling of Margaret's room on his days off. Thus the cover of the book - the painting of the rose, done by Konigsburg herself, with the shadow of the towers on top of it.
When Margaret accidentally discovers that her uncles have lost a three year battle with their neighbors and the Home Owners Association, she enlists her mother's childhood friends Peter and Loretta, who's families once lived on either side of the uncles, to help her save the towers. The uncles have lived in their house long enough to see their downtown neighborhood go from working class families to slum to yuppie gentrification. The new home owners consider the towers a useless eyesore and, being lawyers, they know how to go about removing them. However, Peter Vanderwaal is now the curator of an art center and Loretta is a lawyer and executive for Infinitel, one of the newly created long distance phone companies that have sprung up in the wake of Ma Bell's demise. Jake and his mother, as well as the devious campers who caused Margaret to pursue her course of passive resistance, come to the aid of the towers with some passive resistance of their own. After a great showdown that garners national attention, Loretta saves the day when Infinitel offers to buy the towers and move them to a nearby hill that over looks the college because they realize they can kill two birds with one stone. They have publicity they didn't have to buy as well as artwork that can serve as cell phone antenna towers. The book ends wonderfully with Margaret, now a college student, looking back on the events and providing updates on the major players in the story.
This book is so well written, the characters so complex and interesting and their dilemmas so compelling, that it feels like a book for adults. I'm sure it would be it the main character wasn't twelve, but the beauty of the book it how important it is that the main character is twelve and we see the story mainly through her eyes. She is invested in different ways than the adults and has a perspective that allows the reader to learn a bit about life, love and loss in ways that an adult narrator couldn't have pulled off.