Thursday, April 25, 2013

Goodnight Mrs. Frankweiler, Wherever You Are...

Sad news in the New York Times this week (I'm just catching up):  E.L. Konigsburg, author of a longtime favorite children's book, the magical  (and magically titled) From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, has gone to spend her nights in a more celestial place even than the Metropolitan Museum.

Growing up in a Pennsylvania town, reading The Mixed-Up Files was a window into a world I fully intended someday to find my way into - if not as a runaway, like its heroes, at least some day, somehow.  And I did.  I first visited the Metropolitan Museum on my very first trip to New York, and while in one way it was a bitter disappointment - the Egyptian collection was closed, under wraps as part of a long-term renovation - otherwise it was all Mrs. Frankweiler promised.  When, years later, I moved to Manhattan, the Met was one of the anchors around which life revolved.  Of course, by that point it was an updated place, increasingly glitzy and retailized and not quite the slightly fusty, slightly eccentric sanctuary in the book.  Still, even today, it has its quiet corners and places where, if you stand still enough in some far corner, you can half fancy you, like Konigsburg's two runaways, might want to spend the night.

The offbeat story of Mrs. Frankweiler and her files appeals, I think, to children who already know they may be a shade eccentric themselves.  While for me she was a one-off author, known for only the Files, reading her obituary and learning of her other books confirms that that was a prime audience for her: children who would take naturally to stories about, for example, Eleanor of Aquitaine narrating the story of her life from a comfortable seat in Heaven.  I like the the author's words about her own Pennsylvania childhood:  “Growing up in a small town,” she said, “gives you two things: a sense of place and a feeling of self-consciousness — self-consciousness about one’s education and exposure, both of which tend to be limited. On the other hand, limited possibilities also mean creating your own options.”  She also said, “I think most of us are outsiders. And I think that’s good because it makes you question things.”

The next time I go to the Met - skirting the crowds, defiantly refusing to pay the outrageous "suggested donation" (which you must remember is voluntary and quite contrary to the wishes of the founders of what is meant to be a museum open to all) - I'll climb the grand staircase and, as I've done before, thank the mysterious E.L. Konigsburg (E. for Elaine, it turns out - I don't think I had even ever really thought about her gender) for bringing me there.


  1. That was one of my favorite books growing up -- we even saw the lousy movie version at Radio City Music Hall (starring Ingrid Bergman). I miss that fountain!

    1. The Fountain Café - never quite the same after it was drained. I used to insist on waiting until we could get a table nearest the panels from the first-class saloon on the Normandie...

  2. Oh my god!
    That was my absolute favorite book as a child!

    When I finally got the chance to the Met it was like I had finally come home.