The View from Saturday by E.L. Konigsburg. Reread: 163/163.
I read this book about four times as a kid not because it was my favorite book but because I really did not get it. I thought I would read it again now and see if I got it. I don’t think I do.
The View from Saturday is a slightly mystical (not at all magical or fantastical), carefully portioned, formally precise novel. It got the Newbery Medal so I think either a bunch of other people did understand it, or they didn’t, and they were pretty sure they should have, and this impressed them, so they gave it an award. I don’t begrudge E.L. Konigsburg and her odd books awards, because there is something meticulous and elsewhere unspoken in her writing. That said, I’m not sure I ever completely understand her books.
In The View from Saturday, a sixth-grade team of four is making an unprecedented state-level showing at the Academic Bowl. The four children have been chosen by their teacher, Mrs. Olinski, who is returning to teaching after a ten-year absence following a car crash that left her paralyzed from the waist down.
Mrs. Olinski is of the “things are not as they were, and children have changed for the worse” school. She takes comfort in very small prescriptions (for example, correcting a fellow teacher to say hanged rather than hung). There’s sort of a distant angelic rightness about her attitudes (of all kinds) in the book. I don’t think I agree with her attitude, though I may sympathize with it—but I find it so hard to get at the characters that I’m not sure how strongly I disagree or sympathize.
Independently of Mrs. Olinski’s choice, each of the four children are somehow connected: Noah, staying with his grandparents in their retirement village, serves as an impromptu Best Man in a retirement village wedding, after his wagon trips up the original Best Man and breaks his leg. That Best Man is Nadia’s father. Nadia’s grandfather has just married Ethan’s grandmother. And Ethan rides the bus with Julian Singh, who brings them all together for afternoon tea at his father’s new B&B, at which point they all become a cohesive unit of perfectly matched genius children.
All of these connections are odd because they’re too close to really explain all four of the children winding up in the same classroom or being picked by Mrs. Olinski for her academic-bowl-team-without-trial. There’s this little suggestion that somehow they planned to be picked, but there’s no indication of how that worked except for the virtuous powers of their four interconnected, precocious minds.
I’m not convinced by the end that I’m convinced by their connections or their coincidences or their outcomes. The characters themselves are convinced, and forge through everyone and everything else by the power of their rightness, but I’m not convinced. Maybe the problem is that their form of outcast is the holy pedantic, and while I have certainly been that, I’m not wholly agreeable to the idea.
The whole book for me is a tricky balance. I recognize those smart kids, and the need for them to believe they are right and worth something. I recognize that the outcast sometimes has to recast theirself as something truly glorious just to get through the disdain and dislike of people. The idea of a perfectly synchronized unit of like-minded people is heady, and attractive, and delicious.
But I don’t think I believe any of what happens (except for the part where they rescue sea turtle eggs), and I’m not sure if I’m supposed to. I didn’t see them as real sixth graders when I was in the sixth grade and I don’t know, and I don’t know if this is a wistfulness exercise by Konigsburg or a fable or a book written straight that I just cannot relate to.
Here are the takeaways I know I am meant to have: that in community there is power, that kindness is crucial, and that taking all things in parts and making all steps a part of you instead of an impediment to the real stuff is the best thing you can do for yourself. And those are actually great lessons. Which is maybe why my feelings about this book are complicated.
So it’s left me with the same uncertain mind about it as it always has, and in five or ten years I’ll have to read it again and see what if anything has changed.