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up a road slowly

9 march 2011

Up a Road Slowly, the 1967 Newbery Medalist, has the odd property of seeming very old-fashioned and very grown up, by the standards of Newbery winners from 40+ years later.

Irene Hunt has her first-person narrator, Julie Trelling, tell her story in a leisurely, comfortable way. There's pain and conflict along the way, but the novel unfolds as the kind of "backward glance" that reassures us that the teller has reached a pleasant vantage point from which to look back on youthful angst. It's a middle-American, middle-class family saga as well as the story of a girl's development. I was reminded of To Kill a Mockingbird (though without the social conscience), or The Magnificent Ambersons (though not quite as fraught).

What makes Up a Road Slowly most old-fashioned, now, is its status as a "told" story. A few things are "shown," but the novel proceeds by explaining, what went on in Julie's life, not reliving the experience. In fact, it's a tier beyond a "told" story; one might call it a "characterized" story. One small example: the novel ends with Julie giving a high-school graduation speech.

Once on my feet and accustomed after a few seconds to the sound of my voice, I stood relaxed and confident . . . It was not a speech that was going to shake the world, but it was direct and earnest. I saw Father nod once or twice at an idea that I brought out, and Danny was able to clasp his hands around one crossed knee and to give the impression of a young man entirely confident that his girl was doing all right. (182)
Julie doesn't, however, report anything that she says. That's OK – we might accept that the scene would be played in a way that makes her speech itself unimportant, and her emotions, or those of her listeners, the focus – but that's not really the focus either. (If it were, we might expect a disclaimer like "I've forgotten what I said that night, and it didn't really matter anyway.") The focus is the speech, but the writing stands at two removes away from the speech and simply sums up, abstractly, what the speech was generally like in terms of effect.

Such abstraction is Hunt's typical narrative mode in Up a Road Slowly. The abstraction extends to setting and period. We are vaguely somewhere between "town" and "country" in a highly generic America. There's a college somewhere nearby, and there's a public high school. It's the 20th century, but that's about as close as I can place it chronologically. There doesn't seem to be a world war going on, or the threat of one. High-school students are supposed to know the Eighteenth Amendment by name alone, though it's hard to know whether it's just been ratified or just been repealed. Cars are common, but radios don't seem to be; or perhaps it's just that the folks in Julie Trelling's world care very little about the world outside.

Yet for all its vagueness and reticence, Up a Road Slowly is a pretty hip book. Its adults behave like adults. Or rather, they behave like adults in the process of adding layers to the essential selves they were as children, which is to say very much like real-life adults. The older generation sees itself in the younger, and the younger generation grows to adulthood very conscious of how they're becoming their parents. Alcoholism is frankly dealt with; teen pregnancy (not Julie's!) is represented obliquely but unmistakably.

The best scenes in the book involve a complicated multi-cornered relationship among Julie's Aunt Cordelia, Cordelia's incorrigible brother Haskell; Mrs. Eltwing, who is losing her mind and clinging to Haskell as a kind of chevalier, and Jonathan Eltwing, Mrs. Eltwing's husband, the love of Cordelia's life. The scenes where the four characters interact, saying and not saying things, partly revealing their complicated mutual histories, are very well done. And by 2010s standards, they're hardly the stuff of children's literature. But Up a Road Slowly testifies to how books about adolescence can be read at all ages. Fiction like this doesn't stay crammed into an age-group or reading-level, much as marketers would like it to behave that way.

Hunt, Irene. Up a Road Slowly. 1966. New York: Penguin, 2003.