Friday, December 28, 2012

Up a Road Slowly: 1967 Medal

by Irene Hunt,
read by Jaselyn Blanchard

This is a coming-of-age story, narrated by the protagonist.  Julie Trelling is seven when the story begins with her mother's death.  She is sent to live with her mother's older sister, her spinster schoolteacher Aunt Cordelia, out in the country.  The story covers the next ten years in Julie's life, until her high school graduation at 17.

It's hard to pinpoint the setting for this quiet tale, especially temporally.  There are references to sweeping dresses, gloves, no central heat in Cordelia's home, a one-room schoolhouse with a coal stove, the idea that girls wearing pants is less acceptable, stationery, later rural consolidation of schools, telegrams, and a time when a long-distance phone call was "still considered an extravagance" (page 174).  I was ten years old when this book won the Newbery, and I can remember most of these things. so I think the book was probably set in the 1950s or early 1960s.  It seems to be post-World War II and definitely pre-Vietnam, but could be as early as the 1920s or 1930s (author Irene Hunt was born in 1907).  In a way, the book has rather a timeless feel to it.  Ditto the physical setting - it could be most anywhere, but is probably the Midwest.

There's no thrilling plot, but the book touches on a number of issues unusual for children's books of the time period.  Julie has a classmate who is mentally retarded, dirty and smelly.  Her uncle is an alcoholic liar.  A neighbor's wife is insane. Julie learns some life lessons from her encounters with these characters.  Julie also has to deal with the marriage of her beloved older sister and her father's remarriage, as well as a bad boyfriend who nearly leads her astray, and a friend's teenage pregnancy.  All of these are handled without being preachy.

In her Newbery acceptance speech, entitled "Books and the Learning Process" (Horn Book, August 1967, pp. 424-429), Hunt noted (page 425),

Teachers are beginning to realize that children are not created fully equipped with such values as courage, compassion, integrity, and insights into the motives and needs of themselves and of others.  These attributes...are often learned from the behavior of the characters who people the books they read.  We adults may preach the values we wish to instill, and the children will turn away from our sermons; but a book, a fine book that mirrors life accurately and honestly - there is the effective substitute for our ineffective sermons.

Often children are troubled and in a state of guilt.  One can say to them, "You are not unique."...It is in books that an identification can be made...Julie, in Up a Road Slowly, is not set apart by virtue of her high-mindedness or moral values.  But for a watchful family she might well have stepped into the same trouble in which some of her young readers may find themselves.  (page 426)

Some of Irene Hunt's inspiration may have come from her own life.  She was seven when her father died, and she and her mother moved to the nearby farm home of her grandparents.

The book is well-written and full of wonderful vocabulary - scintillating, impeccable, pedestrian, propitiated, and hackneyed were just some of the words I wrote down.  Julie aspires to be a writer, and is telling her story looking back at her past, so this is very fitting.  Julie also quotes Shakespeare and poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay and Sara Teasdale.

Actress Jaselyn Blanchard was excellent as narrator Julie.  Her youthful voice often trembles and quavers with emotion, at just the right time.

I think this book would still appeal to a quiet, thoughtful young lady, and I highly recommend it.

© Amanda Pape - 2012

[The audiobook, and a print copy for reference, were borrowed from and returned to my university library.  This review also appears in Bookin' It.]

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