Liz Tells Frank What Happened In “The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler”

Dear Frank,

This one is for the ladies. Not the young ladies, but the feisty old dames. Frank, the best thing about being female is that we have taken back the post-childbearing years; when I’m in my sunset years, I am looking forward to being a wise-cracking dame. Not like in an Adam Sandler movie; like in Downton Abbey.

Or like in E.L. Konigsberg’s The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, one of my favorite children’s books (in fact, the copy I re-read last week was my childhood copy, which I’d brought to LA with me years ago, which should tell you something), and I can’t believe you’ve never read it, Frank! Because this is very much a story with limited appeal — today, a tale of two children living inside an art museum would struggle for mainstream acceptance, due largely to the lack of Wii and hoverboards — but Frank, you are classy!

Mixed-Up Files is established at the very beginning as an account of events written by the titular Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, about whom we know little initially except that she has a lawyer named Saxonberg, to whom the document is addressed. It’s Basil E. (her rapper name) who’s telling us the story of Claudia, a suburban twelve year old who’s decided to run away from home to Manhattan (a journey taken on by no shortage of aspiring actors and bloggers).

Claudia is set up from the beginning as smart, calculating and anal — and her thoroughly-plotted plan includes enlisting her younger brother Jamie as a companion, largely because she wants the company and he has more money than her. And I just realized now that Claudia never considers bringing a friend from her class; Claudia, in fact, never mentions having any friends. I empathize with her on that score; as someone who was also a pretty odd duck as a kid, I remember all too well what being strange did to one’s popularity.

Anyhoo, Frank, Claudia manages to convince Jamie to join her, which is lucky because he’s got over twenty bucks in 1968 money (which makes him a fucking billionaire among 1968 children). And off to New York they go, with instrument cases stuffed with extra underwear and a CUNNING PLAN — to hide out in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, because Claudia is totes in love with old-timey sculpture and artwork (totally normal for a 12-year-old).

Kids LOVE this shit.

What ensues is a detail-heavy recap of their escapades running around the Met without adult supervision — eating in auto-mats, listening to docent lectures and wandering the empty museum at night. It’s kind of like Home Alone 2, except on a budget, not at Christmas and with less slapstick and Joe Pesci.

The plot deviates from the nerdy “and then they learned about mummys” stuff after a few days, though, when a mysterious statue of an angel, rumored to be sculpted by Michelangelo but not confirmed, is acquired by the museum for $250 and put on display.

Claudia is quite taken with the statue and wants to figure out whether or not it’s real; it becomes her focus once the excitement of having run away from home dies out, because the one thing Claudia didn’t plan was an end game for this adventure. Discovering for real who sculpted Angel would send her home a hero and validate the whole adventure, she figures, and so she drags Jamie to libraries to research Michelangelo’s works, about which we go into a fair amount of detail; goddamn there’s a lot of learning in this book.

This is Claudia picking out a bed to sleep in at the Met, as drawn in one of the ink sketches from the original edition of this book; I had to include at least one of them because of how awesome they are.

But the kids do well, finding a decent clue — Michelangelo’s stonemason mark on the base of the statue — and going to a great deal of trouble to tell the museum about it, which includes typing a letter using the demo typewriter at a typewriter store, then spending a good amount of their money on a post office box. The museum, however, already knew about said mark, and brushes them off in a reply, saying the evidence is not conclusive. (It’s actually a very thorough, courteous and efficient response, from a museum PR rep — I guess in the days before Twitter, PR reps had time to do stuff like write a two-page letter to an anonymous tipster.)

That’s when Claudia throws her Hail Mary, because in doing their research she and Jamie learned that the woman who sold the sculpture? TOTALLY WAS BASIL E.! TWIST! So Jamie and Claudia spend their last dollars to leave Manhattan and travel to Basil E.’s country estate in Connecticut, hoping that she will tell them wassup.

Basil E., in person, is kinda crotchety and mean, but it’s pretty clear she likes the kids (for one thing, her account of their adventure is very fondly written) and so she presents them a challenge — try and find the proof that Michelangelo sculpted the Angel sculpture in her “mixed-up files.” (It’s all coming together, Frank!) Basil E., you see, is a total hoarder when it comes to papers and documents and articles and whatnot, all of which are stored in massive filing cabinets organized according to her own peculiar sense of direction. So there’s a ton of crap to sift through, and Basil E. takes a cue from Double Dare and puts an hour on the clock. GO!

A very dramatic sequence of hunting through files ends with Claudia making a random stab at a guess — a lucky one, though, which uncovers an original sketch of the statue, clearly drawn by Michelangelo! Hooray!

Basil E. pledges to leave them the sketch in her will, which means that they won’t be able to end the mystery of Angel (and probably make some decent bank) until she passes away.

But Claudia’s okay with that, because all she really wanted was to have a secret to make her feel special. And she got just that. Basil E., a collector of secrets — who in fact demands that the kids recount all they’ve been up to over the last week, so that she can write this document and file it away in her cabinets — knows just what she means.

There was a film adaptation of this book years ago, starring Lauren Bacall. I have not seen it, but I like that Claudia is a glasses-wearing nerd and that Lauren Bacall is involved.

And meanwhile, in coincidence-town, that lawyer I mentioned earlier, Saxonberg? He’s totally Jamie and Claudia’s grandfather, and Basil E. has known the whole time that these are his missing grandchildren, about whom the family is worried sick. So she makes a call to have them picked up and returned to their family — though it’s not the last that Claudia and Jamie will see of her, because they decide to adopt her as a grandmother since she doesn’t have any children of her own.

And they all lived happily ever after, I guess. The book is very light on drama and very heavy on precise details about what it’s like to run away from home and hide out in a museum. Which makes for a soothing, easy read. You should read it, Frank! At least to your children, some day. Just be prepared to explain that $20 in 1968 was a very big deal. Your children will need to learn about inflation some day, after all.

Love,
Liz

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About Liz Shannon Miller

Liz Shannon Miller, based in Los Angeles, is a writer for the screen and the web, her work including G4's Attack of the Show and the tech blog GigaOM. She also co-hosts the podcast Timey Wimey TV, contributes to the video curation site Here's Some Awesome, and tells her friend Frank about stuff at Liz Tells Frank.

Posted on May 3, 2011, in All the Spoilers, Books and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I spamming because your using profane language on a children’s book which is totally unacceptable

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