The cover image, with the two photographed children standing at the steps of a pen drawing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was too iconic to be mistaken for any other. Dania’s heart skipped to see it in Gwen’s hands.
“The Mixed-Up Files” had been a formative book for Dania –– a testament to the power of art and history, the need to let facts affect you rather than simply accumulate in your mind. Since first reading Konigsburg’s book as a child, Dania had returned to it periodically. Each pass through Claudia and Jamie’s tale provided more details, including humor at the comparatively cheap prices in the New York of the 1960s.
Dania could see that Gwen was nearing the end of the book, and so silently continued to work alongside her, until finally the book was set down on the coffee table. Gwen yawned, and made to get up from her chair.
“What did you think?” Gwen asked, seemingly out of nowhere.
Gwen furrowed her brow, but soon recognized. “Oh, you know the book?”
“I love that book, so much,” Dania chimed. “It was very important to young Dania.”
“What book?” Eleanor asked, removing headphones.
“From The Mixed-Up Files Of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler,” Gwen said, holding it up.
Eleanor brightened. “I just re-read that last year!”
“Did you?” asked Dania.
“Sure, it was the fiftieth anniversary,” Eleanor said, as though this was a standard reason.
“I only remembered it existed about a week ago,” Gwen explained. “I recalled liking it, so I wanted to see if it holds up.”
“And?” Dania asked, defensive already. “Does it?”
Gwen flashed her trademark smirk of consideration, but began softly. “I found myself very attached to both of the children.”
“Right?” Dania replied. “I love them both. And I love their concerns about money. How seriously it’s treated.”
“Getting around New York for less than thirty dollars is hilarious, I will say.”
Dania, rolling her eyes, added, “It was the 1960s, Gwen, inflation is a thing.”
“I’m sure it’s accurate,” she clarified. “It’s still hilarious in hindsight.”
“Also the stranger danger of these two kids –– how old is Claudia, twelve?” Eleanor asked. “Two kids wandering around at that age, I’d be scared for them.”
“It is very impressive, I will say,” Gwen stated, “that in a book about hiding in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, there’s only one instance where the trope of ‘almost being caught’ is used. The security of the museum is almost never called into question.”
“I wouldn’t want all of that,” Dania said. “It’s more interesting to hear Claudia and Jamie banter about money and grammar and everything else they have really good conversations about.”
“I forgot how much grammar correction is in the book!” Eleanor said. “There’s, like, an entire page where they get caught in this ‘who’s on first’ routine about the phrase ‘hide out in.’ It’s wonderful.”
“Or ‘different/differently,'” Dania agreed.
“And the part where she sends the letter to the museum about the mark on the Angel statue, and gets a response back,” Eleanor recalled. “I was super annoyed when I read that as a kid.”
“Annoyed?” Gwen asked. “Why?”
“Because I wanted an answer to whether the Angel was carved by Michelangelo or not!” Eleanor groaned. “I mean, I get it, because I’ve read the end of the book. But as a kid? Ugh, I could feel the anger running back into me as I re-read it.”
“I just thought it was cool that she got a response from the museum, and so quickly,” Dania said. “If they revealed the mystery so early, there’d be no book left. We’d never meet Mrs. Frankweiler herself.”
Eleanor made a show of placing her hands on the coffee table, and leant forward. “Okay,” she began. “Tell me I’m not going to grow up to be Mrs. Frankweiler. Can’t you just see it?”
“Oh, one hundred percent,” Dania agreed.
“Just living alone in my mansion with a butler and my extensive collection of artistic secrets.” Eleanor beamed. “That’s the life for me.”
Gwen shrugged. “Perhaps. I’m not sure I love Mrs. Frankweiler as a character, but her narration is quite nice.”
Dania could feel her heart sink. She locked eyes with Gwen, but her friend didn’t seem to sense the gravity of what she was arguing.
“Oh, I like her fine,” Eleanor replied, before Dania could form thoughts. “It’s a trope; the wealthy woman who helps out the children. I was convinced that she might be related to them, secretly, but they avoided that.”
“Telling the story from her perspective is a strong choice,” Gwen added. “She’s not an entirely unreliable narrator, but you slowly get more information about why she’s telling the story, and everything ties together nicely.”
“But you don’t like the character,” Dania repeated. She was standing, as Eleanor and Gwen sat.
Gwen barely blinked. “No, not particularly.” Looking at Dania, she added, “I sense that you do.”
“I think she’s great,” Dania began, as she paced the room. “I love the way she toys with the kids about how much she knows. I love that she enjoys not just the collection of knowledge but the valuing of it. I love that she’s basically not in the book until the final two chapters but you keep waiting to figure out why she’s telling the story. I think she’s great, and I will not have you sullying her name.” And she stamped her foot down.
Gwen frowned –– less over what Dania said and more at having the phrase ‘sullied her name’ stolen –– and eventually replied. “When was the last time you read the book?”
“A little over a year ago,” Dania said. “I should re-read it again now, obviously.”
Gwen picked up the book again. As she searched, Dania tensed up.
“Don’t try to make me hate this book, Gwen,” she warned. “I know you’re gonna find some sort of dark message or something, and I don’t want to hear it.”
“On page 152…” Gwen began.
“She’s discussing the Angel statue, and her research. She says: ‘I’m satisfied with my own research on the subject. I’m not interested in learning anything new.'”
“Okay, she’s a little closed-minded,” Dania conceded. “Does that make her unlikable? She’s eighty-two.”
“She goes on,” Gwen continued. “‘I think you should learn, of course, and some days you must learn a great deal. But you should also have days when you allow what is already in you to swell up inside of you until it touches everything. And you can feel it inside of you. If you never take time out to let that happen, then you just accumulate facts.'”
Dania cocked her head. This was, in her view, the heart of the book –– one of the elements she most liked. A call to not just hold up cultural touchstones, but to emotionally invest in them. How was this was Gwen took issue with?
“‘I’ve gathered a lot of facts about Michelangelo and Angel,'” Gwen-as-Frankweiler continued. “‘And I’ve let them grow inside me for a long time. Now I feel that I know. That’s enough for that.'”
Searching to drive the point home, Gwen looked to the facing page. “‘The experts don’t believe in coincidence as much as I do, and I don’t want them to throw doubt on something that I’ve felt always.'”
Eleanor knew she should speak before Dania and Gwen did. “So, if I’m understanding you, Gwen” she offered, “you’re reading the reason for Frankweiler’s refusal to provide her research to the museum as an act of objection to research?”
“And a blind confidence in faith over confirmed facts, yes,” Gwen said. “When presented the opportunity to have her belief confirmed or denied, she turns it down. I dislike that.”
“But she isn’t guessing blindly,” Dania countered. “She has what she believes is proof that the statue is actually by Michelangelo. I think that’s accepting proof about her beliefs. She’s not making claims with no basis in fact.”
“Still, she’s putting a limit on how many facts she will allow to sway her opinion,” Gwen said.
“The book is all about the importance to emotionally connect with art!” Dania pushed. “More than just collect facts. Isn’t that what she’s doing?”
“Not to mention,” Eleanor chimed in, “if she had donated that material to the museum and confirmed the Angel as a Michelangelo, Claudia would never have found it interesting.”
“The whole story is about Claudia wanting to be different, to be changed,” Dania said. “And that just being smart or liking art isn’t enough. You have to be committed to the art. That doesn’t happen if she shares the secret.”
“Although I will say,” Eleanor admitted. “I have questions about the ethics of Frankweiler keeping that information from the museum. Like, shouldn’t it be public record?”
“Precisely,” Gwen agreed. “If it were just Frankweiler not wanting to believe the statue is really Michelangelo, that’s personal. But the statue is property of the Met, and its history is unknown. Who is a private art collector to make the call that no one gets to know the history of the statue? Just to keep her own view secure?”
Dania sat back down, speaking directly. “I don’t think that’s the only reason. There’s all that stuff she says to Claudia about the value of a secret, how it makes her stand out. And Claudia gets it –– in the car ride later, she mentions that secrets are only good if someone knows that you have one. Maybe it’s a little selfish, but I think the point of the book is that, even if it is, it doesn’t directly harm anyone. Like, it’s about self esteem and how Claudia feels to herself.”
“That might be why there are only three characters that matter,” Eleanor suggested. “Because the conflict is not with how the world sees them, but how they see themselves.”
“Whose side are you arguing?” Gwen asked.
“The side of discussion.”
“Claudia’s first method of being different, of feeling changed, is public: running away from home, and it doesn’t work,” Dania explained. “That’s why she’s annoyed when the photo in the newspaper is wrong. But at the end, the way she gains that change in herself is with something that only three people know. I think that’s important for her.”
Gwen shrugged agreement. “Doesn’t negate Frankweiler keeping the info secret from a museum.”
“Maybe not,” Dania said. “But it would ruin the book if she didn’t.”
“Isn’t that the catch?” Eleanor said. “Emotionally relate to your art, and you preserve it. Reveal info about it, and that connection just falls apart.”
“Well, there’s probably a middle ground,” Dania suggested. “Loving it despite the information.”
“Frankweiler doesn’t understand that,” Gwen said.
“Well,” Dania murmured. She looked down at the book –– the classic cover she carried around in her youth. “Maybe Claudia will.”
Image Source: JSTOR Daily