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“Up A Road Slowly”: the story of a “road” from rural Illinois into adulthood and the 20th century

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Up a Road Slowly is a novel I owned and read several times when I was growing up.  I remembered it as being quite serious, and even now, upon rereading it, I’m surprised at how much I like it.  It is the story of a young girl, Julie’s, life with her spinster Aunt Cordelia, with whom she lives from the time she is 7 until she is 17.  What makes it different is what it is not.  Julie is not a poor orphan: she moves in with her aunt after her mother dies, but she regularly sees her father, and he is clearly capable of supporting her.  It’s just one of those situations the family has decided that it’s the best situation for the time being, and in Julie’s case (not her siblings), the aunt’s house becomes Julie’s home. Maybe this sort of arrangement was more common in the past than it is now: I certainly remember knowing of families or two when I was growing where a child lived with relatives for some reason, even though the parents were in the picture. 

Why you may not have heard of this novel before 

Irene Hunt’s body of work is relatively small, but she is mostly known for Across Five Aprils, which is set during the Civil War and other novels with a strong historical connection. It’s ironic that she is better known for Across Five Aprils since she received the Newbery Medal for Up a Road Slowly; Across Five Aprils was only an Honor Book. I’m guessing it’s partly because it’s hard to find novels for young adolescents to read in school, and everyone in the U.S. probably teaches the Civil War in middle school, while there isn’t anything unusual about a coming-of-age story, Anne of Green Gables is likely to be chosen if one is needed.

The Setting of Up a Road Slowly

This novel is marred by the fact that time and place of the story is somewhat vague: I think it’s supposed to be set in the Midwest, but only because near the end of the book, some characters go “back east” to university. 

The time period is a bit confusing as well, but again, based on the sparse details in the book, it seems to have been set in the 40’s, perhaps after the war.  There is no mention of the Great Depression or World War 2, but both Julie’s home and school (a one-room school), are heated by a coal stove, and the one-room school is merged into a graded school the year that Julie starts high school.

  Horses are still common, but cars have come into use enough that the high school students carpool themselves 13 miles each way to school and back each day. So that’s it.  When I read this book as a child, I believe I thought it was set in the current time, and for all I knew children in the country where still going to one-room schools (a check of Wikipedia tells me that a very few still are, but as I guessed, many of them closed between the 20’s and 40’s, when school busses made bigger schools possible and probably more economical). 

The way the story is written, it’s as though it’s supposed to be set in the early 1960’s, when it was published, but the historical details don’t seem to add up. And it’s frustrating not to know where they are supposed to be although I think that was a convention of the time, at least for contemporary fiction: quite often the weaker novels don’t have a clear setting, as though teenagers were to dumb to be interested in anything they couldn’t see. Ironically, some of the ones that have aged the best and become classics, such as S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, published soon after this novel, have specific settings.

What this novel almost accidentally captures is a particular moment in time when one way of life was ending and another one was starting. This change is most especially shown throughout the book through the mixture of horses and cars as transportation. The change is shown most poignantly with the close of the local one-room schoolhouse. In the US, as in many countries, the schoolhouse often is the only cultural center that a community has, and when they lose the school, they start to lose their group identity.

I consulted with the State Library of Illinois to see if they know anything about Irene Hunt or the setting of this book. They basically agree that it might be set in Illinois. Irene Hunt’s hometown, Pontiac, is about 40 miles from the college town of Bloomington-Normal. Hunt may have compressed the distance between Aunt Cordelia’s farm and the college town to better facilitate the story.

The cover photo of a farmhouse is my guess as to what Aunt Cordelia’s home might have looked like. I chose it because it’s prosperous looking, but not too fancy. It’s possible it might have been a fancier Victorian style, but those often have features I thought might have been mentioned in the book. This photo was taken in the 40’s but was built in the 1870’s; in fact, it has a quite interesting history of its own:

The Mumford House was constructed in 1870 as a model farmhouse on the Univeristy of Illinois experimental farms south of the main campus. It’s plan was straight out of Andrew Jackson Downing’s seminal “The Architecture of Country Houses: Including Designs for Cottages, and Farm-Houses and Villas, With Remarks on Interiors, Furniture, and the best Modes of Warming and Ventilating” (University of Illinois archives, see link below).

Below is an example of an Illinois schoolhouse that may be like the one that Julie attends. This one is in Clarksburg Township, Illinois (USA) and was built in 1892.


This photo was taken in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania USA in 1938. It is perhaps a couple of decades after Julie attended a one room school, but it shows what daily life in the class was probably like, with the teacher leading groups in the front while other students work on their own.

I’m guessing the classroom shows the type of modernization the school would have had in the early 20th century.


Irene Hunt’s hometown is on one of the famous historic travel routes for the US. Route 66 leads west.


 


This book is not a roman a’ clef (fictionalized story of the author’s life). Some of Hunt’s biographical details appear in the book. Like Julie, Hunt lost a parent early in life, but it was her father, not her mother. She was close to her grandfather, but she did not live with an aunt, as far as I know. Given that Hunt apparently never married and was a teacher, she may have based the character of the aunt on some of her own experiences, but that’s just a guess.

As the title, Up a Road Slowly, clearly conveys, it is a coming-of-age story. The fancy name for this type of story is “bildungsroman”. Just in case you want to act snotty at a party.

Read The Lois Level about Betty Smith and her “bildungsroman” and “roman a’ clef” stories here!


Short Read

Up A Road Slowly can be read in 2-3 hours.

As a Newbery Medalist, it is available in most public libraries.

If you love the beach, wild horses, and the idea of you kids being in a multi age classroom like these, move to Corolla, NC!


Wikicommons

Free Read

Quick Read

When I was trying to pinpoint the setting of Up A Road Slowly, I did a little research on one-room school houses. I was surprised to learn that one of the remaining operating one-room schoolhouses in the United States operates in the Town of Corolla in North Carolina, a coastal town a mere 90 minutes away from my home.

Now, the school operates as a public charter school but in the historic building.

In the U.S., a charter school is a school that operates like a private school, with its own program and curriculum. The difference is that the school is publicly funded by taxes, and eligible students attend for free. Some schools use a lottery of eligible applicants to select students, and some use a private-school type admissions process.

Below is a link to a 1951 news article from my own hometown newspaper (we are the closest city to the area). The transcript is included because the original scan is very difficult to read.


Photo by Marsh Williams from Pexels

Scan of 1955 article from The Virginian Pilot/Portsmouth Star (now The Virginian Pilot).

Transcript:

(The Link on the School’s Website is to a Word document)

The Portsmouth Star

Sunday, October 30 1955

Five Pupils and One Teacher

“Undercrowded” School Thrives Beside Curituck Lighthouse

By James. E Mays

Parents, attention.

Are you disgusted with our schools?

Are you fed up with split shifts, school constructions delays and political procrastination?

Would you like to see more attention paid to teaching fundamentals, less attention to Methods (with a capital “M”)?

Seek no further, for your educational Utopia has been found. Fact is, it was right in your backyard all the time.

They don’t call it Utopia though. They call the place Corolla, N.C. and (miracle of miracles!) Corolla has an UNDERCROWDED SCHOOL!

There are only five pupils in the school… five pupils (count ‘em) and a kindly, graying teacher who wishes there were more children for her to teach.

Mrs. Grace Leward, the teacher, spoke with just a trace of wistfulness in her voice a few days ago when she stood in the screened (against mosquitoes) doorway of Corolla’s white frame schoolhouse and discussed her teaching problem.

“I’d sure like to have more pupils,” she said, “especially in the sixth, seventh, and eighth grades. It would be easier for them to study if there were two to a class.

No Problem at All

From that point of view, Mrs. Leward’s third grade is no problem at all. It has two members and if a third-grade class of two members still sounds a bit small the Corollans can still at least take comfort in the fact that things weren’t always this way.

Time was when Corolla, now dozing remotely in the shadow of the Currituck Lighthouse on the Virginia-North Carolina sand barrier reef, was a busting hunting and fishing village. Some 27 families lived in the village then, tending their nets in the ocean at the front door and in Currituck Sound at their back door.

And in the Fall the wildfowl came…millions upon millions of ducks and geese winging their way southward along the Atlantic Flyway stopped to feed on Currituck Sound’s aquatic plants, thereby coming within range of the guns of the Corollans and the sportsmen who hired the Corollans as guides.

One thing was lacking however.

Corolla had no school. The nearest one was several miles across the sound which presented obvious difficulties of water transportation and safety. To travel by land to the nearest school would necessitate a daily round trip of 70 miles.

So the watermen of Corolla built a school of their own.

They got a donation of land on which to build it from a wealthy sportsman, Currituck County did its part, and education, grades one through eight, came to Corolla. Parents desiring to give their children high school education sent them across the sound, boarding them in Currituck County’s mainland homes.

Once Had 46 Pupils

At its peak, Corolla School had 46 pupils enrolled.

But the old order changed, giving place to new, and Corolla’s people began to drift away to seek greener, if illusory, fields of the mainland and the city.

Said Corolla’s postmaster and school bus driver John W. Austin:

“Everything has left around here, and it’s left me holding the bag!”

But not quite everyone has left:

Six families remain in Corolla and the school also serves Penny’s Hill, a village of 12 families up the beach.

Austin’s school “bus” is a Willys station wagon with four-wheel drive, and his school bus “customers” are the thre (sic) children from Penny’s Hill who are of school age.

Beach Serves as Road

The road the bus travels is the beach itself, firm and smooth near the water’s edge at low tide; tricky and requiring frequent use of the four-wheel drive when Austin makes the trip though the soft sand above the high tide mark:

“The trip takes a little over an hour, depending on the tides,” said Austin.

Once the three children who come by bus from Penny’s Hill are joined by the two children from Corolla who walk, Mrs. Lewark begins the day’s work She hears all classes in all subjects, 2- recitations a day, and there is a certain amount of eavesdropping.

“My third graders are very interested in others’ recitations,” she said. “They listen to one of the others’ lesson and they like to look at the lesson in the book after they have heard the recitation.

“they get a good deal out of listening in on the others.”

Corolla’s pupils bring their lunch to school and after lunch is eaten they may engage in a game of volleyball (their current enthusiasm) or swinging on the playground equipment (perennial enthusiasm).

School is out at 2:30, which leaves the Penny’s Hill three and the Corolla two plenty of time for such chores as they may have, plus the ever-present possibility of fishing…or maybe, at this time of the year, watching the waterfowl wing in from the north…or maybe just building castles, amid the dunes and the isolation, in the sand of the great barrier reef.

And they have the aging red brick spire of the lighthouse to watch over them and the sea.

 

 

  What makes this book good? 

 

Up a Road Slowly is a carefully characterized story about a girl who could be any girl.  She’s bright, but not excessively so.  She’s pretty, but she doesn’t stop traffic wherever she goes.  She can be kind of bratty.  She’s definitely sheltered and maybe a bit spoiled.  But she can also be hard on herself, and what you see is someone learning that everyone has both good and bad in them.  We are all products of our environments, victims of ourselves…a bit of everything.  And the lack of significant tension in this book clears the way for the Julie to illustrate the inner struggle from which character comes, in a situation where it may not have developed at all.

To illustrate this struggle, Hunt provides a “foil” in the character of Carlotta Barry, who is definitely spoiled by her parents. Despite Aunt Cordelia’s best efforts, Carlotta never develops the character that Julie does, and things do not go well.

I think I find it kind of a relief to read this book and discover that I don’t have to be extraordinary to be happy or successful. My takeaway is that I have to work hard on the kind of person I become, and then I’ll be ok. Julie matures during the book because she has a strict upbringing from someone who does it for no more reason than just plain love and because Julie takes her lessons to heart.  At times, she might be a little too hard on herself because I don’t believe that the adults around her are taking her as seriously as she seems to be taking herself, but she is the narrator, and the point is she does learn.

 

So maybe the reason I like this book is because it gives me a sense of relief.  I don’t have to be perfect, and the threshold for recognizing the good in those around me can be quite low…even pretty ridiculous people have some good in them.

 

Uncle Haskell

 

One of the most interesting characters in this book to me is Julie’s Uncle Haskell.  He stands in sharp contrast to her Aunt Cordelia.  Aunt Cordelia lives in the family home and has born all of the family responsibilities, while Uncle Haskell lives in the the remodeled carriage house so he can drink himself into oblivion and NOT work as a writer in peace.  The extended family treats him as a joke and a source of embarrassment, but aside from his lying, I’m not sure why he is such a big problem.  At the beginning of the book it is established that neither Haskell nor Cordelia need to work. 

It could be argued that Cordelia’s doing so is an act of pride rather than the act of service as it is portrayed. There is also the possibility that she is taking the single teaching position in the area away from someone who needs it, which makes her elitist.  She isn’t vilified for not finding a different way to put her talents to work. 

A theme throughout the novel is that Uncle Haskell was spoiled by an overly indulgent mother.  Personally, I don’t accept anyone’s using that excuse past the age of 30, if that long.  Once you’re 18, my attitude is suck it up buttercup and get on with it.  But truly, what is it that Haskell was supposed to do?  If he were needed, he should have been told that, and the reality is that whenever something is asked of him, he comes through.  Hm.  Cordelia and Haskell are not meant to be primary characters in the book, but to an adult reader, they certainly are interesting.

Sexism in Up a Road Slowly (spoiler alert)

A boy that likes Julie (who later becomes her boyfriend) force kisses her while the other boys hold her arms back. Julie hits him, and she is punished for her behavior, mainly for not acting like a lady. I maintain that a lady does what she has to do to in these situations.

My mom always told me to fight with every fiber of my being if anyone tried to touch me.

Thanks Mom! xx

There are a couple of other incidents I can forgive due to the time and place of the story.

Related Books

The books below are all favorites of mine and two of them have already been featured on The Lois Level. Up a Road Slowly is different in that Julie has lost one parent, not two, and her family is well-to-do. This plot twist removes dramatic tension in some ways, but in another way it increases it: If Julie doesn’t make something of herself, she might be pitied, but she probably will still be supported (judging by the family’s treatment of Uncle Haskell). But it a way, having (almost) everything means you don’t have an excuse to fail.

Free Read

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm is in the public domain and can be found online for free.

Click here to read The Lois Level on Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm

Free Read

Short Read

The character of Betsy in Understood Betsy is more similar to Julie in that she has a lot of loving relatives even if she doesn’t have her parents. She is also younger than Julie; however, so the narrator/author puts the pressure more on the adults (to raise Betsy well) than on Betsy herself. Ironically, Betsy overall has a lot more responsibility than Julie. The two novels are set in roughly the same time period although Understood Betsy was written at the time it is set.

Understood Betsy is also in the public domain and available online for free.

Click here to read The Lois Level on Understood Betsy.

More Books by Irene Hunt

Adult readers would enjoy both of these books as Quick Reads.

No Promises in the Wind is about a teenage boy making it on his own during the Depression…and interesting topic that you don’t see that often.

I think teenagers like this type of story too because being a teenager, especially in the 21st Century, is so confining. We infantilize kids until they are much older than in the past, and many kids want to break free but aren’t sure what it would look like.

For other kids, they possibility of their being on their own is reality.

Published in 1976, The Lottery Rose is a bit ahead of its time.

I’m sorry about the cover: I hope it doesn’t turn adult readers off as much as it probably does for kids.


Cover photo: Mumford House, 1948; Urbana, Illinois USA

Urbana, IL Mumford House 1948

Schoolhouse photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Clarksburg_Schoolhouse.jpg

Classroom photo:
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lancaster_County,_Pennsylvania._Martha_Royer_teaches_class_at_one-room_school,_1938_by_Sheldon_Dick.jpg