Sunday, March 15, 2009

Edgerton, WI: Who was Sterling North?

Thomas Sterling North (November 4, 1906 – December 22, 1974) was an American author of books for children and adults, including 1963's bestselling Rascal. North, who professionally went by "Sterling North", was born on the second floor of a farmhouse on the shores of Lake Koshkonong, a few miles from Edgerton, Wisconsin in 1906 and died in Morristown, New Jersey in 1974. Surviving a near-paralyzing struggle with polio in his teens, he grew to young adulthood in the quiet southern Wisconsin village of Edgerton, which North transformed into the "Brailsford Junction" setting of several of his books.

Sterling North's maternal grandparents, James Hervey Nelson and Sarah Orelup Nelson, were Wisconsin pioneers. Born in Putnam County, New York, James moved first to near Rochester, New York, then to Menomonee, in Waukesha County, Wisconsin (near Milwaukee), then pioneered a farm near present day South Wayne, in southwestern Wisconsin. His daughter, Sarah Elizabeth "Elizabeth" Nelson, was Sterling North's mother; she died when Sterling was seven years old. She married David Willard North, also the product of a pioneering local family, whose brother ran the family farm.

Sterling North had three siblings: two sisters, Jessica Nelson North who was an author, poet, and editor; Theo, who was the martinet in the family; and a brother, Herschel, who survived World War I. When Sterling North was eleven (in 1917, which would have been the year of his maternal grandfather's 100th birthday), several of his uncles wrote extended biographies about their parents and their pioneer farm life. One of these uncles was Justus Henry Nelson, an early missionary in the Amazon Basin. This writing effort was at the same time as the setting of Rascal and may have been an early literary inspiration to North.

After attending the University of Chicago, Nort worked for the New York World-Telegram and the New York Sun before becoming (he left without graduating in 1929), North worked as a reporter (eventually literary editor) for the Chicago Daily News, the New York World-Telegram and the New York Sun before becoming a full-time freelance writer. One of his first books, The Pedro Gorino, published in 1929, was a narrative of the life of Harry Dean, an African-American sea captain. A 1934 North novel, Plowing on Sunday, featured a rare dust jacket illustration by Iowa artist Grant Wood.

North's book Midnight and Jeremiah was made into the Disney movie So Dear to My Heart in 1949. (The movie garnered an Academy Award nomination for best song: "Lavender Blue", sung by Burl Ives). In addition, North wrote Abe Lincoln: Log Cabin to White House, The Wolfling: A Documentary Novel of the Eighteen-Seventies, Racoons are the Brightest People, Hurry Spring, and many other books.

In 1957 he became the general editor of Houghton Mifflin's North Star Books. This firm published biographies of American heroes for young adult readers. Although uncredited, North's beloved bride, Gladys Buchanan North, also contributed to the editing process.

North published his most famous work, Rascal, in 1963. The book is a remembrance of a year in his childhood when he raised a baby raccoon which he named Rascal. It received a Newbery Honor in 1964, a Sequoyah Book Award in 1966, and a Young Reader's Choice Award in 1966. It was made into the Disney movie of the same name in 1969. Additionally, it was made into a 52-episode Japanese anime entitled Araiguma Rasukaru. Raiguma Rascal means Racoon Rascal.

Subtitled "a memoir of a better era", North's book is a prose poem to adolescent angst. Rascal chronicles young Sterling's loving, troubled relationship with his father, dreamer David Willard North, and the aching loss represented by the death of his mother, Elizabeth Nelson North. The boy reconnects with society through the unlikely intervention of his pet raccoon, a "ringtailed wonder" charmer that dominates almost every page.

The author's sister, poet and art historian Jessica Nelson North, is one note of early 1900s normalcy in the book. She wasn't particularly pleased with how her brother portrayed her family in Rascal yet was proud of her brother's achievement, regardless.
(source Wikipedia)

Next time you are cruising north of Janesville, WI take a second and explore Sterling's hometown. Near the shores of Lake Koshkonong (a huge but shallow lake) and the historic Rock River, Edgerton has quite an interesting story to tell: summer celebrations of a unique tobacco economy (yes tobacco growing in Wisconsin!), and an honest to goodness classic Carnegie library.

Tobacco Days

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