I was daydreaming in the Yerba Buena Gardens yesterday, watching the seagulls refresh themselves in the fountain then fly away and loop back again, sometimes drinking from it and sometimes bathing in it. From a loose progression of ideas, I thought of the infamous fountain scenes in From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and got a hankering to re-read this childhood classic.
Claudia is a precocious almost-twelve year old who decides to run away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC, bringing her younger brother Jamie with her (mostly due to the face that as a penny-pincher, he’s managed to save $24 of his allowance). They hide at the back of the school bus, and wait seven minutes after the bus driver gets off before they venture out and head for the train station to take them to Grand Central. Jamie has his entire $24 in dimes, nickels and quarters, and makes quite a bit of noise with his pockets dragging his pants pocket down a few inches. With their violin and trumpet cases stuffed full of clean clothes and underwear, they enter the museum and wander the floors deciding on an ancient canopied bed as their place to spend the night. Minutes before closing, they head into the bathrooms, stand on the toilet, carefully leaving the door to their stalls slightly ajar, and then have the museum to themselves after the staff and guards leave.
After a few days, they smuggle some of their dirty laundry out of the museum and schlep it to a local laundromat, where everything turns a bit gray. Claudia is something of a neat freak, and insists that they take a bath that night, leading Jamie to the huge fountain inside the restaurant at the museum. They splash and wash and Jamie discovers coinage at the bottom of the fountain that will keep them afloat financially for a bit longer.
The main plot movement is the story of the mysterious “Angel” statue which arrives during their stay. The question is whether or not Michelangelo sculpted her, a mystery the children get involved in solving. First they discover the mark left by the statue when she is moved, writing a letter to the museum to inform them of this discovery and renting out a P.O. Box for the museum to write back, which it does and says that they already knew about the mark. The kids spend a day at the NY Public library doing research on Michelangelo and also learn from a NYTimes article that the original statue owner pre-auction was a Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. In despair about the museum already knowing about the mark, Jamie marches them up to the train station ticket desk to get tickets home. Claudia stops him, and instead they buy tickets to go see Frankweiler.
Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is the narrator of this story, writing it as a letter to her lawyer, Saxonberg, to amend her will to give Claudia and Jamie the notes and sketches that serve as evidence that Michelangelo did carve Angel.
Reading this story again as an adult, I had both positive and negative reactions: I was struck and pleasantly surprised by the sophistication of the language on the one hand. On the other, the memorable scenes of the children living in the museum were less than I remembered. I couldn’t believe the fountain-bathing was such a tiny part of the story, since in my own imagination that act had taken hold as a major incident. Konigsburg still deserves much credit for imagining the types of scenes that would wedge in children’s minds for years.
I leave you with a quote from the story that is woefully true in our information-overloaded world:
Claudia said, “But, Mrs. Frankweiler, you should want to learn one new thing every day. We did even at the museum.”
“No,” I answered, “I don’t agree with that. I think you should learn, of course, and some days you must learn a great deal. But you should also have days when you allow what is already in you to swell up inside of you until it touches everything. And you can feel it inside you. If you never take time out to let that happen, then you just accumulate facts, and they begin to rattle around inside of you. You can make noise with them, but never really feel anything with them. It’s hollow.”