Descriptions on book covers are usually trite. After reading the back of Irene Hunt's Up a Road Slowly, I was convinced that I would be hard pressed to find anything of value within its pages. Imagine my surprise when I discovered it was a novel of great wisdom, sadness, and beauty.
Even more, imagine my surprise when I discovered it was a novel of great realism. This isn't a fairy tale version of girlhood, but a simple portrait of a young woman being confronted with good and evil in equal measure. And unlike many books on similar themes, Up a Road Slowly's Julie Trelling learns that evil is not something merely outside herself, but is also within her.
There isn't much plot to speak of, at least not in the ordinary sense. The story begins with the death of 7-year-old Julie's mother, and simply follows her along the more or less familiar path of growing up till she graduates high school. Raised by her aunt, she makes and loses friends, falls in and out of love, becomes self-aware, and changes imperceptibly but truly.
Many people die throughout the novel. Sometimes these deaths are sudden, and Julie learns that death is final, and that once a person has crossed its borders there is no opportunity for forgiveness or apology. One of the most tragic scenes in the whole book is when the retarded girl Julie has mistreated dies, and Julie feels the weight of guilt unconfessed.
Another deeply tragic element comes later, when Julie and her friends are in high school. Carlotta, a friend from grade school, dates the guy Julie had broken up with, and ends up being sent to an aunt in Idaho when the guy gets her pregnant. Later, Julie sees Carlotta's parents weeping over a pony cart they'd bought her as a young girl.
But by far the biggest tragedy is Uncle Haskell. Smart, funny, and handsome, he's squandered everything from his ambitions to his money on drink and idleness. He only cares about himself, and the only words he has for anyone are sarcastic and cynical. He dies of cirrhosis of the liver just as he seems to be emerging to a real concern for others.
What makes this book so good isn't the high death rate, or mere sentimentality. It's the fact that death, betrayal, selfishness, and all the other evils of normal human existence are portrayed so straightforwardly and with no illusions as to responsibility. No character is wholly good, and Julie herself is responsible for as much suffering as anyone else.
This is particularly surprising because Julie is the narrator. But Hunt doesn't put lots of sentimental phrases in her heroine's mouth ("no cliches" is a mantra throughout), or make her confused about reality and responsibility. Bad things happen, often more frequently than good things, and Julie deals with it as anyone in real life must.
Why read a book that simply shows life as it is? Because all reading isn't about escape: we should also read to gain insight and wisdom into our own lives, observing and learning from the mistakes of others so we might avoid them. Up a Road Slowly has much wisdom, and teaches us that we are not perpetual victims, nor is beauty simply our due as human beings.
In some ways, this book is the anti-Pollyanna. There's no attempt to imagine sadness away, or to put a smile where it doesn't belong. There's every attempt on the part of the novel's protagonists to maintain goodness, nobility, and integrity in the face of unalterable events of nature as well as their own misdeeds and bad attitudes.
Even in this they aren't always successful, and thus are some of the most real characters teen readers are likely to encounter in the vast morass that is "children's literature" or "young adult literature." There's not a lot of action, but there are deeply felt and vividly drawn people who readers will care for, cry with, and in some cases try to emulate.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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