To satisfy the nostalgia that arrives annually with my birthday, I revisited Irene Hunt’s Up a Road Slowly, a 1966 coming-of-age novel that won the Newbery Medal in 1967. I read it for the first time in the early 1990s, when I was in the fifth grade. I stumbled across it in my school library on one of the lower shelves by the window facing a vegetable patch. I loved that vista, and I loved this book. It reminded me of L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, another sentimental and gracefully-written story featuring a strong-willed young woman navigating the challenges of growing up.
Up a Road Slowly was Hunt’s second novel, published two years after her first, when she was almost sixty. The novel’s Aunt Cordelia is similarly mature, a woman who uses the lessons she’s learned in her life to guide her young niece, Julie Trelling.
When I first picked up this novel, I was only a few years older than little Julie was when she moved in with her Aunt, and much of Aunt Cordelia’s advice applied to me too. Julie is a child who makes mistakes, a child who can be cruel sometimes, a child who is learning. In other words, she’s a typical kid who shouldn’t be defined by the follies and missteps of childhood. As Aunt Cordelia explains to her, “You’re neither cruel nor mean; basically, you are a very good child. You’re just young.”
It’s a point I appreciate even more now that I’m a parent guiding my own children to adulthood. They will make mistakes, just like I did (and still do).
However, like virtually all classics, aspects of this novel are problematic, something I see more clearly now than I did when I was eleven. It’s a book from a time when people, even relatively enlightened ones, willfully ignored or actively suppressed society’s complexity and diversity. Reflecting this oppressive world, Up a Road Slowly makes no mention of racial, ethnic, or religious diversity. It is also hetero- and cisnormative, terms coined many years after the novel first appeared on the shelves. As a result, this book quietly promotes messages that cannot go unchecked, messages that could be especially painful for children who do not identify with these so-called norms.
For example, Aunt Cordelia, commenting upon a child she once taught, says, “Now that one was bound for trouble from the first. She was boy crazy before she was quite aware that there were two sexes.” She also says, “A woman is never completely developed until she has loved a man.”
Plus, while Julie is a young girl who embraces the freedom of blue jeans (instead of dresses) and questions her older sister’s behind-the-scenes research supporting the work of a man, she largely accepts that it’s “a man’s world.” She does her best to follow her Uncle Haskell’s advice to “learn how to play the game gracefully.”
I wasn’t so impressionable at age eleven to adopt Up a Road Slowly’s old-fashioned world view, and today, I am a public interest lawyer devoted to changing the discriminatory rules of “the game” through litigation, education, and public policy. I wish I could say Aunt Cordelia and Uncle Haskell wouldn’t recognize their norms in our society anymore, but that’s certainly not the case. It will be someday, though. I wouldn’t do the work that I do if I weren’t an optimist at heart.