In E. L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, twelve-year-old Claudia Kincaid hatches a plan to run away from her home in Connecticut to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, taking along her money-grubbing younger brother, Jamie.
The children roam the galleries during the day, blending in with crowds. They sleep in the antique beds on display and bathe in the fountain, supplementing their money with the coins they find in it. When an angel sculpture recently acquired by the Met from a Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler begins to attract crowds, Claudia and Jamie become fascinated with the piece. They use their access to the museum to try to prove that it was indeed crafted by Michelangelo. And in their attempt to discover its provenance, they travel to visit Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler herself. (For some reason, I can never think of her as a mere Mrs. Frankweiler—so I’m just going to keep typing out her whole, grand name.)
The story is prefaced by a letter from Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler to her attorney, Saxonberg, and is narrated by Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, complete with trenchant and sometimes cryptic asides.
From the Mixed-up Files was published in 1967. It took the Newberry Award, and Konigsburg became the only writer to have both won and been runner up for the prize in the same year (for her first book, Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth). She also illustrated From the Mixed-up Files, modeling Claudia and Jamie on her children.
I read From the Mixed-up Files when I was in fifth or sixth grade. I picked up my copy from the paperback carousel in the library of my suburban Canadian school.
But memory had softened the story into a soulless romp. Over the years, my mind fashioned it into a dreamy urban version of those children’s survival novels that I also liked to read as a kid; instead of weaving reeds and baiting fish hooks, Claudia and Jamie hid in bathrooms and ate at the Automat. I’d forgotten the opening letter from Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler to her attorney. I’d forgotten about Jamie’s cheerful, avaricious practicality, and about how the children wander not just in the Met but over Manhattan. I’d forgotten Claudia’s deep and fundamental dissatisfaction with her life. I’d forgotten about Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler’s files—the entire meaning behind the title, the heart of the book—probably because I didn’t understand what I was reading.
Claudia is a self-assured and earnest twelve-year-old. She has a sense of mission and tries to make her museum stay educational rather than an anarchic escape. Mrs. Frankweiler notes:
Claudia informed Jamie that they should take advantage of the wonderful opportunity they had to learn and study… her ambitions were as enormous and as multidirectional as the museum itself.
Jamie says he prefers an adventure untainted by grown-up regulations—but he lives in thrall to the rule of dollars and cents. When Claudia suggests trying to find the origins of the angel, brother and sister end up researching. In libraries.
Yes, two school-age children at loose in New York City willingly and deliberately go to the library.*
(*Sorry NYPL, I love you.)
Claudia makes increasingly poignant and quixotic attempts to give their trip a shape and a mission without being quite sure what will change it. She wants the difference she feels in herself borne out. She wants to be a heroine but has a muddled sense of how to go about accomplishing it. At one point, she sees a guide at the United Nations dressed in a sari:
When she was grown she could stay the way she was and move to some place like India where no one dressed as she did, or she could dress like someone else—the Indian guide even and still live in an ordinary place like Greenwich.
(Frankly, I see a lot of grown-up white people who are as misguided as young Claudia.)
She wants to be different. She wants this trip to have significance and change the way people see her—or change how she sees herself. She tells Jamie brokenly that she wanted to prove the provenance of the angel because then she would be a heroine—others would see her as heroic, and she wants to herself: “I feel as if I jumped into a lake to rescue a boy, and what I thought was a boy turned out to be a wet, fat log. Some heroine that makes. All wet for nothing.”
But it is in her conversation with Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler that she learns to think of herself as one. Those secret files record her as a heroine.
I re-read this book while watching my daughter’s swim lesson on the Upper West Side of Manhattan—across the park from the Met, across the park from where Claudia and Jamie hid.
Because I now live in New York, the fantastical landscape of my childhood imagination has supposedly become a part of my day-to-day reality. Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Mary Rodgers’ Freaky Friday, and Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy, among others, all take place on streets I’ve walked.
I think of these books sometimes—I think of Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing when I’m in posh doorman buildings with mirrored elevators, like the one Peter and Fudge lived in. But most of the time I don’t remember the fact that I share a setting with favorite childhood books. I don’t feel like a heroine.
I first read From the Mixed-up Files when I was around Claudia’s age. I left for New York when I was ten years older than that. At both those times in my life, I was earnest, like Claudia, but more anxious than she was. Much less confident.
Twelve is often the age when girls lose what self-assurance they had. And I wish I’d understood this book better at twelve. I wish I’d carried more away from it. To read—and understand—From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler can be vastly and secretly affirming: Claudia learns as long as she knows she’s a heroine, she is the heroine of her life. “Now she wouldn’t have to be a heroine when she returned home… except to herself.”
I re-read that last fierce and tender section of From the Mixed-up Files while watching my kid’s swim lesson, and I tried not to cry. I still don’t know what I felt: grief? mourning? a sense of losing something I wasn’t sure I had? My daughter was learning to float and blow bubbles—she was learning to save herself in the water. I hope these skills last her for a long, long time.