Up a Road Slowly
by Irene Hunt
Interests: strong female characters, coming of age, adolescence, family, romance
Follett Publishing: 1966
186 pages, 11 chapters
Also by this author: Across Five Aprils, The Lottery Rose, No Promises in the Wind, The Everlasting Hills,
Julie is only seven years old when her mother dies and she is sent to live with her rather stern spinster aunt Cordelia in the country. In the years that follow Julie matures from a rather self-centred, sour little girl to a loving and generous young woman. This is much like Anne of Green Gables, only without the period details (this novel is set in the nearly-modern age), and little Julie is not nearly as thrillingly loony as Anne Shirley. This story is more similar to the transformation of the main character in The Secret Garden, but without the gothic setting and hints of magic. Extra interest comes from the strange, Tennessee-Williamsesque, alcoholic Uncle Haskell, who is redeemed slightly before his liver finally gives out for good.
Julie slowly adopts the work ethic and values of Cordelia; despite the open warfare of their early years together, time mellows their relationship into a warm and caring one. Julie’s beloved older sister marries, even her father remarries and Julie has to weather each sea change in her family life. The final struggle she goes through is a relationship with a domineering, boorish high school boyfriend, but when she recovers from that heartache she has the good sense to turn to the boy-next-door who has been waiting patiently in the wings.
The only element of ‘mature content’ is so obliquely handled you could almost miss it: Julie narrowly escapes being ‘seduced’ by her boyfriend during a nocturnal walk in the woods, but her friend who dates him next is not so lucky and is sent away, presumably pregnant, though nothing is said outright. (So old-fashioned!)
The weakest aspect of the book for me was the feeling that Julie just has to realize her aunt is right and she will magically turn into a wonderful young lady. The more I compare it in my mind to the L.M. Montgomery novel the more it suffers from the comparison. In the first Anne book it is clear that Marilla gains as much if not more from her life with Anne than Anne gains from her mentorship. With the exception of the drunken uncle, the adults in Julie’s family are numbingly proper and correct. Young Julie’s acts of rude selfishness are a welcome change, but she grows out of them.
It’s surprising that this book was written in the late 1960s, as its worldview is certainly from an earlier era. One wonders if the Newbery Committee was drawn to this book because it espoused old-fashioned values during the chaotic youth culture that was raging in 1967.
A little pedestrian and tame, this book nonetheless is well-written, with moments of startling clarity – like the opening pages when her mother’s death turns her world upside down – and fascinating characters like Uncle Haskell. It’s a short novel, briefer and less compelling than the early career of Anne Shirley of Green Gables, but still a worthy read. This is a perfect book for 10 or 11-year-olds who like to read about girls growing up and finding their place in the world of adults.