When Wisdom Isn’t Timeless

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.

16 thoughts on “When Wisdom Isn’t Timeless

  1. Happy birthday! Hope you had a great day. I’ve not read “Up a Road Slowly,” so can’t comment intelligently. I will say that every time you wrote “Aunt Cordelia,” my eyes saw “Anne Cordelia.”

    The powers of LMM suggestion are strong with me, apparently.

    1. I’m surprised you haven’t read it, but then again, I only found it by chance in the library. There are so many similarities between Anne of Green Gables and Up a Road Slowly. It’s a coming-of-age story, Aunt Cordelia is very much like Marilla, and Julie dreams of becoming a writer like Anne does. I still love the book–I can’t help it–but I won’t give it as a gift to any of the young people in my life. To you, though, I recommend picking it up if you come across it at the library.

    1. Thank you! I had a great day! It was colder outside than I had wanted it to be, but at least I got to celebrate my birthday in the conservatory at Longwood Gardens. I was surrounded by roses as I read A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life. 🙂

  2. Happy birthday! It’s tough when childhood favorites let us down as adults. Every now and then I pick up some of my old books, thinking it’d be fun to give them to my young nieces. It’s always a disappointment when a re-read changes my mind – defining a girl’s role as lesser, casually taking on an us/them tone by point out differences between people as points of judgment and reasons not to know them. Nope. Right now my nieces see every kid they meet as a new friend and they believe they can do anything. I’d never put a book in their hands that plants ideas to the contrary. The risk is giving them outdated, backwards perspectives that cause them to doubt themselves. My sister won’t even let me give them Judy Blume.

    1. Thank you! I had a great birthday. I was disappointed in Up a Road Slowly, in part because those lines (about it being a man’s world and you’re never complete until you love a man) aren’t necessary for the story. They could be removed completely and the story would be virtually the same. I still love this book, though. I can’t help it. But I won’t give it as a gift to any of the young people in my life. My children are free to read it–I recommended it to them before I re-read it–but I will make sure we discuss it afterward.

  3. Sometimes revisiting the past is no fun. I was looking for something to distract me on Amazon Prime last night and discovered they’d picked up a couple of old sitcoms that I remember enjoying when I was a kid. I watched two episodes of Family Ties and wondered why I was ever amused, must less devoted to it. The second episode specifically referred to a country club that didn’t allow African Americans to join and how bad that was, but the laugh track and oh-so-boring and stereotypical situations soon bored me.

    I followed that with two episodes of That Girl. Marlo Thomas was a beautiful young girl, and her character was filled with confidence, but in the pilot, she’s wearing white gloves, which shocked me, it was such a reminder of how “ladies” were supposed to behave some fifty or sixty years ago. She did have her own apartment, and soon picked up the boring boyfriend, yet there was no sex whatsoever, though the series ran in the late sixties into the early seventies, and the pill was readily available. I came across an interesting article, dated 2013, where Marlo talks about the difficulties she ran into making this show. http://deadline.com/2013/01/marlo-thomas-on-difficulty-of-being-that-girl-in-1960s-tv-biz-tca-405197/

    1. How interesting. I haven’t seen an episode of Family Ties in a long time, but one of my colleagues recently mentioned the program, making a similar point to what you’ve said here. I find watching old TV shows with racist or sexist themes even harder to endure than reading old books with the same themes. There’s something about *watching* it that changes the nature of the experience.

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