A little while ago, I asked my friends on a certain social-networking website to name the "perfect novel," if they had read it. One of them named this book first published in 1966, which was already on my short list of things to read. I can't find that discussion thread right now, but I recall that my friend added something like, "...or pretty much anything by Irene Hunt." Such a strong recommendation could only push this book even higher on my to-do list. Until I read it, all I knew about it was that it fell into the category of "coming of age" stories, that it was a Newbery medalist (another category I have been "collecting" for my book review column), and that it is the second book by the author whose debut novel was the highly acclaimed Across Five Aprils. Past experience has taught me by these clues to expect something at least reasonably good. In actually reading the book, however, I found that it was more than reasonably good: it is a book of uncommon candor, intelligence, and heart.
It takes the form of a young woman's memoir of a decade of her life, between the ages of seven and seventeen, that changed the shape of her family and her notion of her own place in it; years that challenged her to recognize her own weaknesses and to forgive those of the people around her. Julie Trelling's ten-year journey begins with a hysterical fit after her mother's funeral, when she and her brother are sent out of town to live with her schoolmarmish maiden aunt while her idolized older sister Laura stays behind to take care of Father. Julie's feelings of grief and loneliness grow with her as Laura gets married and has a child of her own; as her brother Chris gets sent away to a boarding school; and as her father and his new wife redecorate the home of Julie's childhood right out of existence.
In spite of all this, Julie remains on good terms with her "holiday parents," but grows to accept Aunt Cordelia's country house as her home—even as she moves on to high school and Cordelia's career as a primary-school teacher comes to an end. She bears witness to a romantic tragedy when Aunt Cordelia's quondam beau moves back into the neighborhood with his fragile, demented wife. This bittersweet reunion brings pain not only to the long-separated lovers but also to Cordelia's ne'er-do-well brother Haskell, whose alcoholic self-destruction achieves its final phase during the strange affair of Mrs. Eltwing. And Julie, meanwhile, wonders whether her ambition to be a writer might mean she is too like Uncle Haskell for her own good.
Besides all this, Julie experiences her own disasters of the heart, while also picking up an education that many of today's young people ought to envy. Julie demonstrates a familiarity with books no teacher of mine ever required me to read, including some that I have only lately come to appreciate on the cusp of middle age. Taking note of the books Julie refers to, adding them to one's reading list, and understanding the words and expressions she uses in her narrative, could in itself be a small-scale education for a bright young reader. Teachers who recommend, require, or read this book to their students may be giving them a valuable gift.
It isn't quite clear where or when Julie's coming-of-age takes place. It's somewhere in the middle of America, given that the "eastern universities" are said to be half a continent away; and it's sometime when both automobiles and horse-drawn buggies could be seen on the same country roads and even in the same garage. It's a time when a girl whose honor was compromised might suddenly be sent to live with an aunt in Idaho, to the heartbreak of her friends; when people didn't believe in talking longer than three minutes on a long-distance phone call; and when small-town, one-room schools were beginning to consolidate into larger school districts. It's a time when a train conductor might give a sad little girl the wisest advice of her life, when a horseback ride in the woods might happen only five miles outside a college town, and when an inflexibly fussy old aunt may provide all the warmth of home that a growing girl needs. If there is no such place in today's world, it is our loss; except to the extent that we can visit it, and comfort ourselves in its warmth, by reading this book.
Author Irene Hunt died on her 94th birthday in 2001. Her later books (published between the late 1960s and the mid-1980s), are mostly historical novels for younger readers, often marked by sensitivity toward the poor, disabled, and minorities. Their titles include Trail of Apple Blossoms, No Promises in the Wind, The Lottery Rose, William, Claws of a Young Century, and The Everlasting Hills.
Saint Louis USA
Recommended Age: 10+
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