Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Up a Road Slowly

I'm not surprised that Irene Hunt's 1967 winner, Up a Road Slowly, isn't one of the more popular Newbery books. Despite its relatively recent publication date, it reminded me of a much older generation of children's books - it's more Little Women than Holes, for example. It's not even much like The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Whatsername or A Wrinkle in Time, a couple of the other books that won the Newbery in the 60's. If not for the portrayal of an alcoholic uncle - which I don't think would ever have been mentioned so frankly before the 60's - I would have guessed that this story was written sometime in the first half of the twentieth century, when it was set.

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."

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).
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).

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.

4 comments:

Sarah said...

At your suggestion I read this book quickly yesterday afternoon.

I was confused by the setting at first and unsure of the time period. Later I realised what was confusing me was that at the time it was written there was a drastic difference between country life and city life still.

I agree, that overall the book was old fashioned. Cordelia reminded me of my grandmothers and how meticulous they were in their day to day care of their house and their things.

Haskell was described in the very first few pages as a drunk and a liar. Later he is distorted, weak, twisted, an actor. His few moments of decency in the book are in stark contrast to the rest of his life. He is a complex character- mostly bad with a few spots of good. His assessment of what Agnes is or could be to Julie isnt a real shining moment for him, but it is breathtakingly honest and appalling at the same time. Humanity hasnt come so far since 1966 that our children no longer struggle with revulsion at differences- especially when differences includes filth and stench. Agnes did teach Julie something about compassion.

I think the real take home message in this book is that growing up is hard work, that compassion and selflessness isnt inherent in anyone, that we all have bad spots and good spots mixed in. If we are as honest as Julie, we might admit we all have some Haskell-esq moments even as adults.

Anonymous said...

I actually read the book and I was also confused in the begining. When Julie was narrorating,I thought that she was talking about her past life with her mother and aunt Cordelia but later found out the she was talking about her life from when she came to aunt Cordelia to when she graduates high school.

cynthia54 said...

I loved this book, when I read it as a child in the sixties. It is a serious book, with death, madness, alcoholism, and a difficult, brave, literate aunt (who reminded me of my mother)for young Julie to contend with and learn from.

And yes, a complement from Uncle Haskell isn't necessarily a good thing. He's such a great character--self-centered, self-deluded, petty, lying to himself and others, and living off of his sister's kindness. He's reaching far out of himself to try to be kind to his niece and he's honest in this one moment. Usually he's full of fakery.

I think this is a serious, beautifully written book. I have always wondered how much of it is memoir.

Gwynne Gertz said...

I also remember this part quite differently. Julie hears that her aunt had been over to Agatha's house and washed her hair and that it was quite beautiful. In this moment Julie realizes she has participated in a terrible cruelty and she feels a shame that has no answer. I read this when I was very young and thought it absolutely gorgeous how Hunt allows us to feel her protagonist's self reproach without any false sugar coating. I'm 62 now and will always appreciate how Hunt showed the deep, painful feelings of a young person coming into her consciousness. The honesty is everything.