Like Roller Skates (another pretty old-fashioned Newbery winner), this is the coming-of-age story of a strong-willed girl. Unlike Roller Skates, Up a Road Slowly starts out with some real tragedy, and is not a charming romp of exploration and adventure. Instead, it's the story of a rather slow road (sorry, couldn't help myself) of self-discovery and discipline that is peopled with rather difficult people, which sometimes include Julie, the heroine herself.
Also, Up a Road Slowly is really a teen story, although the book covers Julie's life from ages 7 to 17. I think Hunt did a pretty good job of portraying teen angst and self-centeredness. Strangely enough, at times Julie reminded me of Bella of the hugely popular YA book Twilight - both Julie and Bella were good students, liked Shakespeare, and went on about their emotions at great length. Alas, there were no vampires in Up a Road Slowly.
Anyway, parts of this book I liked moderately well. Julie was usually an appealing character, and I thought her flaws made her more realistic. Some of the author's heavy-handed moralizing got on my nerves, though, and alternatively I was disgusted by a few scenes that I don't think Hunt planned that way. I didn't want to stomp on this book (like Daniel Boone, for instance), but these particular parts of Up a Road Slowly pretty much ruined the rest of the story for me. It reminded me a lot of The Matchlock Gun, which was charming - except for those horribly racist parts.
Here's one of the parts that had me shaking my head. It concerns Aggie, a classmate in the one-room schoolhouse where Julie's aunt taught:
Aggie was a mistreated, undernourished and retarded girl, the youngest child of a shiftless, vicious father and a mother who had been beaten down by the cruelties of her life. Aggie must have been ten or eleven the first winter that I knew her and even then, she hardly recognized a dozen words in the primer from which Aunt Cordelia tried to teach her. She would stand beside my aunt's desk floundering through a page that the youngest child in the room could have read with ease, and after each mistake, looking around the room to grin and smirk as if her failures were evidences of some bit of cleverness on her part...But it was not Aggie's retardedness that made her a pariah among us; it was the fact that she stank to high Heaven (pp. 23-4).Aunt Cordelia forces the children in the school to be civil to Aggie and prevents them from excluding her from games or the group lunch, but when Julie turns 12, she decides she would rather not have a birthday party than have one where she is forced to invite Aggie. She is then cruel to Aggie, who becomes a little afraid of her. Soon after this, Aggie cuts her foot, doesn't receive any medical attention, and becomes very ill with a fever. Julie takes her some flowers, recoils in horror from Aggie's squalid house and bitter mother, and then is consumed with guilt when Aggie dies.
Her Uncle Haskell has this to say after the funeral:
"Now, why should you feel guilty, my little Julie? You know very well that if this Kilpin girl could approach you again, as moronic and distasteful as she was a month ago, that you'd feel the same revulsion for her. You couldn't help it."Julie goes on to say that Uncle Haskell "expressed something that was true," but that there was actually "something more" to Aggie than "a distasteful little unfortunate's few barren years and her fever-driven death." Later, Haskell tells her that the compassion she has learned from this experience "may well become immortality for the girl you call 'Aggie' " (p. 67).
He was right, of course...."Hadn't you rather thank Heaven that she has escaped what life had to offer her? And isn't it a blessing that society escaped a multiplication of her kind? Come, Julie, death may be the great equalizer; let's not give in to the hypocrisy that it is the great glorifier." (pp. 65-6).
I don't think this section would have bothered me so much if it didn't seem that Hunt (and Julie) basically agreed with Uncle Haskell. And the fact that Aggie gets to serve as an object lesson for Julie makes her life (and death) worthwhile? Uh, no.
I'm really curious about what other readers think of this part of Up a Road Slowly. And the part where Julie gets in trouble for giving another classmate a black eye after two other boys hold her arms and he kisses her. So please - read it and post about it here.