The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place by E.L. Konigsburg – Review by Catherine Flynn
“What art offers is space–a certain breathing room for the spirit.”
~ John Updike ~
Margaret Rose Kane, the heroine of The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place, by E.L. Konigsburg, knows her own mind better than most 12-year olds. When we meet Margaret, she is at summer camp while her parent are in Peru on an archaeological dig. Her uncles, whom she adores and loves spending time with, have mysteriously turned down her request to stay with them while her parents are away. Margaret’s brief camp experience is made miserable by her seven cabin mates, girls determined to exclude her because she refuses to give up her top bunk. When the girls ask her why, she states simply, “I prefer not to.” This becomes Margaret’s mantra any time she is asked to participate in an activity. No one at Camp Talequa understands Margaret’s inaction and it infuriates them. Her cabin mates accuse her of a variety of mishaps, and the counselor and camp director confront Margaret about her attitude. To her credit Margaret doesn’t accuse her cabin mates of setting her up, but when she begins singing “God Save the Queen” every time she sees the camp director, she is deemed incorrigible and gets her wish to be with her uncles for the summer at 19 Schuyler Place.
But once she arrives, Margaret quickly realizes that her beloved towers, “a network of ribs and struts that cast more light than shadow” adorned with “thousands–thousands–of chips of glass and shards of porcelain and the inner workings of old clocks” crafted by her uncles in the backyard, have been condemned and are going to be torn down. The two men have spent forty-five years lovingly and painstakingly creating these “true works of art.” Margaret loves to stand under the towers “until a certain slant of light caught the pendants and made them refract an endless pattern of colors…and spin around and around, making myself the moving sleeve of a kaleidoscope.” Margaret is heartbroken at the thought of losing the towers and doesn’t hesitate a moment. She knows she must take action to save these “true works of art.”
E.L. Konigsburg, who passed away last year, was not afraid to write books with complex plots and quirky characters. Her books The Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and The View from Saturday both won the Newbery Medal. Roger Sutton called her “one of our brainiest writers for young people, not only in the considerable cerebral powers she brings to her books but in the intellectual demands she makes on her characters.”
These powers are on full display in The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place. This novel is as rich and multifaceted as the towers themselves and the rose windows of Notre Dame that Margaret longs to visit. On one level, this is a coming-of-age story, as Margaret experiences her first crush, but also learns the importance of “doing something from within yourself for something that is not.” On another level, it is an exploration of art itself. What is art? Who decides what is art and what isn’t? And who decides the value of art?
Subtle humor and irony are woven throughout. Margaret’s uncles, Alex and Morris, immigrants from pre-World War II Hungary, are true gentlemen, yet are constantly bickering with each other. The eclectic group of allies Margaret enlists to help save the towers add another layer of depth to The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place. They also raise the question who, or what, are the outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place.
There is much to love about The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place, but in the end, this is Margaret’s story. I was cheering for Margaret Rose from the start. I wanted to defend her when her cabin mates were cruel to her and I wanted to help her protect the towers. At one point in the story, Margaret asks Jake, one her allies, why he is wasting his time helping her. He replies, “I won’t be wasting my time, I’ll be filling it up.” Spend some time with Margaret and The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place. You’ll be glad you did.
Catherine Flynn has been a Literacy Specialist at Sherman School in Sherman, CT for the past 7 years. Before that, she taught third and first grade for 12 years. Reading and talking about books with kids is the best part of her day. She blogs at readingtothecore.wordpress.com and can be found on Twitter at @flynn_catherine.