Up From Jericho Tel, by E. L. Konigsburg

Jericho Tel

E.L. Konigsburg is something of a mystery to me (as an author, that is. As a person she is utterly unknown to me), despite my having read many of her books, one of which I have even blogged about, here.  This is likely because I avoided her during childhood as I always judge books by their covers…and her covers were odd (like this one) and sometimes spooky.  Her titles were (I thought) not intriguing and didn’t make pictures in my mind.  And her name (I thought) was boring.  Probably a man’s name. (Isn’t it interesting that, even as a girl, I was more likely to try books written by women?  I think that is because I fully intended to be a woman who writes books and so felt a kinship with them. Now I just write blog posts and legal blabber. Ah, life.)

Turns out, I was wrong.  E. L. Konigsburg is a woman. What’s more, her books are intriguing and make pictures in my mind. 

This story of Jericho Tel is told by Jeanmarie, who looks back to when she was eleven and dreamt of being famous.  After three weeks of being in a new school she remains friendless – but she cares not.  She scorns the Clones at her school who copy what everyone is doing and can’t seem to see (or care) that a future famous person (Jeanmarie) is in their midst.

But before you can say “Chapter 2”, things have changed for Jeanmarie.  Notably:

  1. Several things have died and been buried (a bluejay; a Luna moth; a mole; a squirrel);
  2. A non-dead thing has not been buried (a Dalmatian);
  3. Jeanmarie has made a friend (Malcolm Soo);
  4. The two friends have been charged with a quest.

Jeanmarie is intuitive and imaginative.  Malcolm is logical and precise.  They bicker and disagree, but ultimately are the perfect team when the mysterious (and dead) Tallulah summons them to her limbo-home (Rahab Station) by pulling them through a magical and trippy conduit (the Epigene) to ask them to find her lost diamond necklace (the Regina Stone) so that her soul may rest.  The assistance she can provide is transportation and invisibility (via the Orgone, which is upstage left).  For the rest, Jeanmarie and Malcolm must rely on themselves. 

Thus begins a strange and somewhat disjointed adventure.  Jeanmarie and Malcolm are invisible (but not, unfortunately, incorporeal) detectives at large, haunting revival meetings, IRS offices, and the homes and offices of Tallulah’s former friends and associates.  The duo (spoiler!) manage to find the Regina Stone, although they decline to recover it, and also learn lessons about themselves.  At least, Jeanmarie (as the narrator) learns a few somethings.  we are left to infer that Malcolm does, too, but we don’t know for sure.

Jericho Tel does have a few things that are worth noting: a non-White semi-protagonist (Malcolm) whose non-Whiteness is not a plot driver; a non-traditional protagonist (Jeanmarie) who lives in a trailer park but escapes the usual “trash” stereotype (as in, even the Clones in her school who dislike her avoid using the word “trash”, thank goodness).  If you are interested in including children’s books in your library that evicted from the presumption of middle class norms, then this book does so without preaching about it.

So…do I like this book? I’ve read it a few times and I like the adventure, but I do find the book disjointed. E.. Konigsburg is also the author of the Newbery-winning From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, which I did not read as a child but read just the other day. It’s also a story about self-discovery and discovery, and also about a team of kids who uncover and solve a mystery. Unlike Jericho Tel, however, Mixed-Up Files does not seem disjointed. I think it’s just a better book.

Reading ages: 10-13.  It’s a proper chapter book without illustrations.  I don’t know if I would have enjoyed it at 13 (grade 8), or found it too simple, but I might have appreciated the themes (inclusion/exclusion; self-discovery) more.

Rating: B+ for the unconventional heroine and sidekick.  B- for being disjointed.

Favourite Sayings:  Tallulah likes to spout wisdom and each chapter is headed by one of her sayings.  Some are frivolous and some are serious.  My favourites are, “If you ever want to learn the difference between accuracy and truth, look at a photograph of Gertrude Stein and then look at Picasso’s portrait of her” (both are on her wiki page), and “A child actor is a vacuum that Nature has every right to abhor.”