by Irene Hunt
Irene Hunt’s Up a Road Slowly is a problem book.
I can’t remember where I first heard about it, but I do remember being told that it’s a great book for girls. By the time I finished reading it, however, I wasn’t sure – and even as I write, I’m feeling the tug of indecision.
Don’t get me wrong: I loved the book. I read it in long sittings, reluctant to put it down. And when my daughter is a bit older, I’ll recommend it to her. So why the uncertainty? Well, keep reading, and we’ll explore it together.
Up a Road Slowly follows Julie Trelling from age seven, when her mother dies and she is sent to live with her Aunt Cordelia, to age 17, when she graduates as valedictorian of her high school class. There’s not much plot, to be honest. The book is more about people: Julie, the folks she loves, and how her relationships with them influence her growth.
My favorite thing about the story is the sheer variety of female characters. They are traditional and unconventional, smart and brainless, cool-headed and mentally unstable. Moreover, the central female characters – Aunt Cordelia, Julie, her sister Laura, and her stepmother Alicia – all find fulfillment because each deliberately chooses the path that is right for her. In other words, Hunt doesn’t try to fit every girl into the same box. Her book is a healthy reminder that there are many valid roles for a woman to fill: scholar (Alicia and Julie), professional (Cordelia), homemaker (Laura), and more. The point is not to value one role above the others but to choose, to make sure that you are filling your role intentionally and because it is the right one for you.
I also love Hunt’s realism. For a classic, the book offers nuanced and fairly progressive treatments of sticky issues such as alcoholism, mental illness, and sexuality. Julie’s alcoholic Uncle Haskell, for instance, is a layered character whose behavior has complex origins – he’s not just a morally bankrupt drunk. And her schoolmate Carlotta, who becomes pregnant by the manipulative Brett Kingsman, is not just a tainted slut – she’s an impressionable girl who is unfairly used and discarded, and Julie both recognizes the injustice of her fate and the importance of maintaining an open heart toward her old friend.
So what’s the problem? There are a couple, actually. First, the book’s attitude toward romantic love bothers me. There are steady messages that strong, successful women will not find fulfillment unless they fall in love and/or marry. Alicia, despite having an established career as a respected teacher, equates being uncoupled with “insecurity” and calls it “frightening”; Cordelia says, “A woman is never completely developed until she has loved a man.” Worse, Julie adopts this philosophy wholeheartedly: once she reaches adolescence, she is fundamentally unhappy and ill-at-ease until paired off with a boy.
Second, I’m not entirely keen on Danny Trevort, Julie’s longtime friend and eventual lover. He’s obviously supposed to be Julie’s ideal match, a boy who deserves her because he is kind and good and appreciative of her talents. But he has a very proprietary and, at times, condescending attitude toward her. When she’s drifting in the wrong direction, he tends to try and bully her back onto the right track (there’s one unsettling instance where she resists this behavior, and he tells her baldly to “Shut up”).
The issue of romantic love in general, and Julie’s relationship with Danny in particular, are central to the book, so these problematic elements form a strong counterweight to the empowering messages found elsewhere in the story. Hence my hesitation. As I was mulling things over, however, I realized that Up a Road Slowly would be worth a review because it makes an excellent case study.
After all, it’s good to have a plan for dealing with books like this: beautifully written, potentially inspiring stories that nevertheless carry some problematic baggage. Many classics, particularly those written pre-1900, fall into this category. Crack one open, and you’re likely to find inspiration right along side paternalism, racial and gender stereotypes, colonialism, or worse.
My suggestion? First, match the book to the girl. The younger or less mature the girl, the less problematic content the book should have. Then be ready to talk. As she reads, or after she’s finished the book, ask her what she thinks of it. Ask specific but open-ended questions about problematic passages: “What do you think of the way Danny talks to Julie when he’s angry? What makes you a ‘complete’ person?”
It’s not a question of whether a girl will encounter oppressive messages in life – it’s a question of when. Train her to recognize those messages for what they are, and to question them, and you train her for empowerment. Books like Up a Road Slowly can be a part of that process. Because, ultimately, a thinking girl is an inspired one.