Running away is one of the most cherished fantasies of children growing up in healthy, loving homes. But while many escape for an hour or an afternoon, few are able to hide out for days on end. Nor would they want to—part of the thrill of running away is the knowledge that home is waiting and the prodigal will be welcomed back with open arms and joyful tears.
Claudia and Jamie Kincaid certainly learn what it means to want to go home, but only after hiding out for several days (and nights) in New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art. Claudia is almost 12, gets straight A's, is tired of chores, and just wants to break out of the normal grind. Jamie is 9 years old, a chronic gambler and cardsharp, and the treasurer for their operation.
Half of the book is the story of the two middle Kincaid children as they survive in 1960s New York City, sleeping in the beds of famous dead people, bathing in fountains, and eating lunch at a downtown automat. The other half involves a mystery: there's a new statue at the museum, and no one is sure whether it's an original Michelangelo or not.
The kids spend their time avoiding museum guards, managing their limited funds, arguing, learning as much as they can about the various displays in the museum, and studying in the library to solve the mystery of the statue. When they write a letter to the museum curators presenting their evidence, they expect to be heralded as heroes.
They get a letter in response (having rented a P.O. box), however, explaining that their evidence has already been taken into account, and that experts are considering the matter. The kids are almost crushed, but then they decide to visit the old lady who'd sold the statue to the museum, hoping to get the truth from her.
It is this same eldlerly lady who narrates From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and she is, in fact, Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler herself. She doesn't enter the story herself (apart from a few asides) till near the end of the book, when the kids show up at her country mansion that's almost a museum in its own right.
There they learn that the statue is, indeed, a Michelangelo original. And here's where it gets strange. Mrs. Frankweiler doesn't want anyone to know that she has proof that Michelangelo carved the statue because it's a secret that makes her feel special, and somehow she communicates to Claudia that having meaningful secrets is part of what it means to grow up.
To which the average reader will say....what?! There's no explanation, no reason given that will prove that meaningful secrets make the bearer of them a grown up, just a knowing smile between Mrs. Frankweiler and Claudia. A main thread throughout the novel is that Claudia doesn't want to go home until she's found something that will make her different, and this secret of the statue is apparently the kind of thing she was looking for.
Sadly, the reader isn't really in on the secret. We're left out, and so while Claudia may have enjoyed the opportunity to change, the audience is denied that same opportunity, excluded by the smile that brings an elderly woman and a little girl together. It isn't what you could really call a satisfying ending, other than the fact that the kiddos make it safely home.
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is well-written, will keep most kids and adults reading to the last page, and is very, very funny. E. L. Konigsburg is adept at capuring the attitudes and humor of childhood, and excels here. But that's about where the value of the book ends. Two kids run away, live in a museum, and leave with nothing the reader will find of much use because it's hidden behind a Mona Lisa smile....or should we say, the inscrutable features of a granite angel that may or may not be a forgery.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
Old Cover (same edition):
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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