Our book today is Sterling North’s utterly delightful Raccoons are the Brightest People, his 1966 follow-up to Rascal, his mega-bestselling book about the boyhood bond he formed with a special and idiosyncratic raccoon. Since Rascal was also (originally mainly) a glowing portrait of a simpler, more innocent era – in this case the early years of the rural 20th Century, although as in most such cases, the era in question is really childhood itself – the book flew off bookstore tables, with every third customer through the door wanting “that raccoon book.” This enormous popularity was certainly helped by the fact that raccoons are so eerily humanlike that it’s hard for humans not to like them instinctively, or at least find them fascinating. They’re widespread – most of the people I know have seen at least one in their lives – and they’re amazingly adaptable to urban and semi-urban life, but it’s more than that: something about their general demeanor, the way they stand up and pay attention when confused or intrigued, and the strikingly proto-simian way they use their hands (once you’ve seen a raccoon manipulate a door latch or an ear of corn, you’ll never think of those appendages as “paws” again) … in some odd and very vivid ways, they seem more like humans than any other animal, even dogs. And the effect only increases the more you get to know they individually. I had good friends once living in western Ontario who lived with a domesticated raccoon for years, and when supper was over and they were deciding which TV program to watch, they took his tastes into account, with no irony whatsoever. And it only struck me as ridiculous until I spent an evening in his company – then I, too, wanted to know if “Bonanza” was OK with him.
North spent his entire life in tune with nature, even when he was spending all week working at big-city newspapers as their go-to literary hack, and when he retired, age 50, he and his wife packed up and went in search of “a place fit for raccoons” – which they found in an idyllic 30-acre plot of moist woodlands outside Morristown, New Jersey. This property, like all natural places North every walked through, opened its secrets to his keen eye and deceptively deep knowledge:
An island in the creek seemed to be composed of unglaciated sand, tiny quartz crystals nearly as sharp as the day they cooled from the molten rock, pink feldspar and flakes of shining mica. Perhaps the miniature mountain on this property had deflected the last advance of the glacier, sending the ice down adjoining valleys. Pointed and precise as the minute quartz pebbles themselves were the signatures of the deer and raccoons and sandpipers imprinted on the island. A muskrat had opened a small fresh-water claim on the previous evening. His webbed hind feet, and trailing tail, had recorded the story.
And in addition to all its other charms, the place of course had raccoons. North and his wife tracked over every inch of the grounds, learned all the quirks of the living things sharing their home, and were privileged to see some of those wonderful and memorable little moments that reveal themselves to anybody with the patience to walk out in wild spaces, like the time they notice the very different personalities of two raccoon kits who watch their mother wade out into a stream:
Then the personality equation appeared again, so sharply we laughed aloud. The smaller baby began running up and down the shore crying piteously to its mother – pleading with her to come back to solid land. The big bold child waded in and began to explore with its little front paws. In a memorable moment, it grabbed, nearly lost, then grabbed again a plump polliwog. There were hundreds of polliwogs in the lake, a few of which would survive to become bullfrogs. But there was an excess which became legitimate food for fish, herons and raccoons.
True, there would be one less bass fiddle thrumming across the water on some subsequent summer evening. But at this moment we could only revel in the excitement and sense of triumph of a brave, three-pound raccoon who had caught its first polliwog.
North has spent his whole life feeling close to wild animals, so it’s only natural he gets protective of them, especially in the face of the rapid natural despoilment that was underway when Raccoons are the Brightest People was written. Although most of the book is whimsical and very lovely, the final pages ring with a bit more indignation:
As Thoreau suggested, all living things are better off alive than dead, be they man, moose or pine tree. And as John Muir believed, man cannot even survive without the wilderness to freshen his mind and revive his perceptions. We are but ephemera of the moment, the brief custodian of the redwoods, which were ancient when Christ was born, and of the birds of the air and the animals of the forest which have been evolving for countless millenniums. We do not own the land we abuse, or the lakes and streams we pollute or the raccoons and the otters which we persecute.
Although indignation wasn’t my own feeling as I finished re-reading this time around. You see, I’d found a nice hardcover of Raccoons are the Brightest People at my beloved Brattle Bookshop – that’s what prompted me to re-read it – and tucked into the back of my new copy, I found a folded-up review of the book from 1969 … somebody had obviously followed that time-honored custom and clipped the thing out of their newspaper. The problem? On the back of the review was an advertisement for Friskie’s dog food, and the ad featured a very different kind of animal from the smart, active, wily raccoon … the kind of animal who, even in its allegedly energetic puppy stage, could still get tired even during the act of gorging on its supper. No specifics, mind you … but it’s a certain misbegotten breed. Sigh.