This week’s post is a book review written by a guest blogger, Jennie-Rebecca Falcetta, a lifelong reader living on the North Shore of Massachusetts. She’s lucky enough to read books for a living with the amazing students at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, where she is Assistant Professor of Liberal Arts.
I must have read it first in sixth grade, after finding it on the shelf of the Great Oak School library. I may have noticed the Newbery Medal embossed on the front; I may, at 12, have just been looking for a book about a girl like me—a preteen given to reading and to feeling utterly misunderstood.
After that first, lovely encounter, I have read Irene Hunt’s Up A Road Slowly perhaps two dozen times. I used to read it every second May for awhile, when the lilacs were blooming. Now, I reread it at the beginning of each summer, after my college teaching grades are submitted. (Thanks to a kindred spirit and fellow devotee of the novel, I now have my own copy to take down in late spring of every year.) Thirty-odd years later, this book still speaks to me. It makes true and compelling story out of people—stubborn, flawed, beloved, fearful, broken, beautiful people.
The book is a Bildungsroman, a coming-of-age novel. Julie Trelling narrates her own journey from ages 7 to 17, beginning with the death of her mother and her removal from home and into the care of a maiden schoolteacher aunt out in the country. Like her literary sisters Jane Eyre and Anne Shirley, Julie often feels misunderstood, even as she sees and relates the world in lively, impassioned terms. She narrates her transition to a new home, her negotiation of her beloved older sister’s marriage and motherhood, her devastating first love. As she travels the road, she comes to understand the complexity of people. She realizes that adults are people who harbor hurts and memories, that the most selfish among them are capable of insight and truth, and that it takes time and experience to know and cherish another person.
The characters are beautifully drawn, with nuance. At first, Julie is “afraid” of her new guardian Aunt Cordelia, whose “aloofness . . . had always made her keep a considerable distance between us.” As the novel progresses, Julie comes to realize her aunt has made a great many sacrifices, and that Cordelia’s precision and correctness form a needed cloak of dignity. Uncle Haskell, Cordelia’s lazy, beautiful, dipsomaniac brother, shirks family duty and lies constantly about his literary achievements. And yet, Julie regularly seeks him out and manages a closeness with and appreciation of him no one else in the story is quite capable of.
Something else captivating about the book is its utter sense of timelessness and placelessness. It evokes its setting—a small midwestern college town and the surrounding countryside—with loving detail and specificity. And yet, the reader never quite knows where she is. A passing reference to the university “back East” Julie’s brother Chris attends and a mention of New York City are the only geographical clues. The years of the novel’s setting are equally slippery. Although Up A Road Slowly was published in 1966 and won the 1967 Newbery Medal (awarded by committee to the most distinguished American book for children published in the previous year), it takes place in a slightly earlier 20th century America—one we can still remember if we put aside our smartphones and squint and into the middle distance. There are automobiles, a mention of Gandhi, a reference to Julie’s wearing boys’ dungarees in the summer only. Long-distance phone calls are still “an extravagance”; there is still a great chasm between being living in town and being a “country girl” out on a farm. But even if the novel’s setting is vague, Julie’s voice is sharply descriptive. Here’s a typical passage, a meditation on belonging:
It was cool and quiet and wonderful in my room. I lay in the wide old bed between my two windows, and looked up at the stars which were thick above the trees that night. This was home, this was contentment, a warm and good contentment in spite of the fact that I knew in winter the room would be icy and I’d have to leap downstairs to dress beside one of the big stoves, in spite of the fact that I would not be one of the townclique and so would probably have fewer beaux, in spite of the fact that I knew there would be altercation between Aunt Cordelia and me. It didn’t matter. Here on the wall were the bookshelves that my grandfather had made for Aunt Cordelia when she was young; out in the stable was Peter the Great, getting old, but still showing his blood; there were the country roads and the woods, there was good old Danny down the road, and silly little Carlotta.
The novel may concentrate on Julie’s immediate sphere rather than engaging the larger world, but that doesn’t mean it shies away from painful experiences. Without ever being sordid, the story weaves threads of stark realism into Julie’s narrative: a classmate with severe developmental delays and poor hygiene; a brilliant musician with mental illness; an alcoholic, literary poseur uncle; a teenage pregnancy.
With her eye for beauty, love of literary language, and keenly feeling heart, Julie (quite naturally) wants to be a writer. Toward the end of the book, she produces a story that incorporates the opening image of Up a Road Slowly: her memory of coming down the walkway of her family home “still weak from the same sickness that had stricken my mother” and of her slow realization that she is to be sent away. I like to think of Up a Road Slowly as Julie’s completed book. That way, the story that ends just at the end of one road—on the evening of high school commencement—hints at the next avenue Julie’s life travels.