Up a Road Slowly
by Irene Hunt
Recommended Ages: 10+
A little while ago, I asked my friends on a certain social-networking website to name the "perfect novel," if they had read it. One of them named this book first published in 1966, which was already on my short list of things to read. I can't find that discussion thread right now, but I recall that my friend added something like, "...or pretty much anything by Irene Hunt." Such a strong recommendation could only push this book even higher on my to-do list. Until I read it, all I knew about it was that it fell into the category of "coming of age" stories, that it was a Newbery medalist (another category I have been "collecting" for my book review column), and that it is the second book by the author whose debut novel was the highly acclaimed Across Five Aprils. Past experience has taught me by these clues to expect something at least reasonably good. In actually reading the book, however, I found that it was more than reasonably good: it is a book of uncommon candor, intelligence, and heart.
It takes the form of a young woman's memoir of a decade of her life, between the ages of seven and seventeen, that changed the shape of her family and her notion of her own place in it; years that challenged her to recognize her own weaknesses and to forgive those of the people around her. Julie Trelling's ten-year journey begins with a hysterical fit after her mother's funeral, when she and her brother are sent out of town to live with her schoolmarmish maiden aunt while her idolized older sister Laura stays behind to take care of Father. Julie's feelings of grief and loneliness grow with her as Laura gets married and has a child of her own; as her brother Chris gets sent away to a boarding school; and as her father and his new wife redecorate the home of Julie's childhood right out of existence.
In spite of all this, Julie remains on good terms with her "holiday parents," but grows to accept Aunt Cordelia's country house as her home—even as she moves on to high school and Cordelia's career as a primary-school teacher comes to an end. She bears witness to a romantic tragedy when Aunt Cordelia's quondam beau moves back into the neighborhood with his fragile, demented wife. This bittersweet reunion brings pain not only to the long-separated lovers but also to Cordelia's ne'er-do-well brother Haskell, whose alcoholic self-destruction achieves its final phase during the strange affair of Mrs. Eltwing. And Julie, meanwhile, wonders whether her ambition to be a writer might mean she is too like Uncle Haskell for her own good.
Besides all this, Julie experiences her own disasters of the heart, while also picking up an education that many of today's young people ought to envy. Julie demonstrates a familiarity with books no teacher of mine ever required me to read, including some that I have only lately come to appreciate on the cusp of middle age. Taking note of the books Julie refers to, adding them to one's reading list, and understanding the words and expressions she uses in her narrative, could in itself be a small-scale education for a bright young reader. Teachers who recommend, require, or read this book to their students may be giving them a valuable gift.
It isn't quite clear where or when Julie's coming-of-age takes place. It's somewhere in the middle of America, given that the "eastern universities" are said to be half a continent away; and it's sometime when both automobiles and horse-drawn buggies could be seen on the same country roads and even in the same garage. It's a time when a girl whose honor was compromised might suddenly be sent to live with an aunt in Idaho, to the heartbreak of her friends; when people didn't believe in talking longer than three minutes on a long-distance phone call; and when small-town, one-room schools were beginning to consolidate into larger school districts. It's a time when a train conductor might give a sad little girl the wisest advice of her life, when a horseback ride in the woods might happen only five miles outside a college town, and when an inflexibly fussy old aunt may provide all the warmth of home that a growing girl needs. If there is no such place in today's world, it is our loss; except to the extent that we can visit it, and comfort ourselves in its warmth, by reading this book.
Author Irene Hunt died on her 94th birthday in 2001. Her later books (published between the late 1960s and the mid-1980s), are mostly historical novels for younger readers, often marked by sensitivity toward the poor, disabled, and minorities. Their titles include Trail of Apple Blossoms, No Promises in the Wind, The Lottery Rose, William, Claws of a Young Century, and The Everlasting Hills.
Island of the Blue Dolphins
by Scott O'Dell
Recommended Ages: 10+
This 1961 Newbery Medal winner has come to be regarded as a classic of historical fiction for young readers, written by one of America's most honored children's authors. I remember seeing a film based on this book when I was a grade-schooler, and the feelings of heartbreak and loneliness that I associated with that film were still on target when I read the book at age 40. It's an amazing, inspiring, exciting story, rich in discoveries about creatures of beauty and wildness and teeming variety; yet at the same time, it is a tale of deep melancholy whose ending may leave you wistful.
It is the story of a girl named Karana, whose people hunt the sea-life on and around their small, remote island in the Pacific. Most of the men in Karana's tribe are killed in a battle with Aleuts, led by a Russian furrier, who have tried to cheat the islanders after hunting the sea-otters around the island close to extinction. Later a ship sailed by white men, invited by their old chief, takes the surviving islanders off to their mission in California. By a strange twist of fate, Karana is left behind and must find a way to survive alone on the island until the white men come back for her.
Karana waits year after year. But she must do more than wait. She must hunt for her own food. She must defend herself against the wild dogs who have already killed her brother. She must make a shelter to protect herself and her food supply from scavengers, predators, and the harsh elements. She must make her own canoe, in spite of a shortage of wood for the job. She tries to sail for the next island to the east, over the horizon, but is lucky to make it back alive to where she began. As so many seasons pass that the young woman stops counting them, she finds ways to fill even deeper needs: the need for companionship, supplied by the animals on the island; the need for beauty, even though she has no one to share it with; the need to explore the mysteries and wonders on, around, and beneath her island.
This book is a powerful instrument of the imagination—not only demonstrating that its author had one, but stirring the reader's too. It makes all your senses aware of such (for most of us) faraway things as sea anemones, giant squid, otters, sea elephants, and cormorants. But here's a fact that will really get the wheels of your imagination turning: THIS BOOK IS BASED ON A TRUE STORY. The so-called Island of the Blue Dolphins actually exists, off the coast of California. Now called San Nicolas Island, it belongs to the U.S. Navy. The main character of this book is likewise based on a real person, variously known as "Juana Maria" or "the lone woman of San Nicolas Island," and she lived alone there for 18 years before being rescued, dying only a few weeks later at the Santa Barbara mission in California. Author O'Dell includes some information about her fate, and the archaeological discoveries regarding her long-vanished people, in an afterword to this book. If you can't wait for that, you can wiki it for yourself. And if you read this book and find yourself even more interested than you are now, behold: Scott O'Dell also wrote a sequel, titled Zia.
by Edith Pattou
Recommended Ages: 12+
In this first book of the "Songs of Eirren" series, the world of Irish legends become accessible to American youth. This is no guarantee that American readers at any age will be ready to guess how to pronounce words given in their Gaelic spelling, which I find so baffling that English spelling seems intuitive beside it. Fortunately, there are only a few of these in this book. And so it is left to the sensuously depicted landscape, the quality of the characters, and the shape of the adventure to give this story that unmistakable Irish lilt.
Main character Collun does not think of himself as a hero. Far sooner than battle monsters with a sword, he would be up to his elbows in the soil of his garden in the far south of Eirren—the country we know as Ireland. But after his sister disappears during a visit to their city aunt, and his mother begins to waste away for grief, and the village idiot tells him it is time for him to go, Collun braces himself for adventure. His unloving, blacksmith father does him one last favor—forging his garden fork into a dagger—and pushes him out the door with nothing but a wallet full of herbs, a bit of food, and a sense of his own cowardice.
Soon enough, Collun's courage is tested when some grey-skinned, yellow-eyed creatures called morgs try to scrobble him. Though his performance is nothing to be proud of, Collun survives—partly thanks to the group of traveling companions he has begun to accumulate. There is, first of all, the aspiring bard Talisen, who can harp with the best of them, but yearns to learn how to write his own songs. Then there is Brie, a fiery archer who turns out to be a girl in disguise. Add a prince of the Ellyl (something like the "fair folk"), whose power comes in handy when he sees fit to use it, and Collun's fellowship is almost complete.
But now an evil queen from the north plans to invade Eirren, a queen who holds Collun's beloved sister hostage. And while the boy learns grim secrets about his true father—a hero fallen in more than one sense—and considers the purpose of the lucky stone his mother passed down him, Collun realizes that the most deadly monster is for him to face alone.
Collun is an easy hero to love, but the challenges he encounters in this story are anything but easy or painless. This is the tale of an ancient culture distilled down to one young man's personal quest for family, home, peace, and belonging. After he knows himself to be weak and afraid, he finds that he has no choice but to act strong and brave. And though the touch of evil leaves its mark on him, he remains good. With such an appealing character at its center, surrounded by such unfulfilled prospects of love and happiness, involved in such fleet-footed and magical adventures told in such a clear and direct way, this book can hardly miss the aim of making you eager to read its sequel, Fire Arrow.
by Edith Pattou
Recommended Ages: 12+
After the events of Hero's Song, hero's daughter and expert archer Brie, a.k.a. Breo-Saight, settles down for a little while with her friend Collun, as he takes possession of the stronghold of his hero father and begins to set its gardens in order. While Collun exerts on Brie a peaceable influence, she feels increasingly drawn back into her quest for revenge on the men who murdered her father in front of her. And so she parts from Collun and sets out alone. Returning to her own father's stronghold, now held by her uncle and aunt, Brie soon picks up the trail of an evil character connected somehow with her father's killers. Meanwhile, she also picks up a powerful magical talisman—the fire arrow for which she is named—which seems to lead her ever deeper into adventure.
Brie follows vague rumors and intuitions about her own ancestry to the small, isolated, northwestern kingdom of Dungal, where she soon makes new friends, learns a new language, and enters into a new way of life. But even amid the joys of living in an almost magically peaceful fishing village, a shadow of evil falls across Brie's path. Goat-men, sea monsters, and deadly figures from her past lurk just beyond the edge of her awareness, quick to attack her when her guard is down, or to harm those she has come to care about. A betrayer from within her own family threatens to conquer the gentle land of Dungal in the name of the evil sorceress who rules neighboring Scath. And the visions and powers that the fire-arrow bring may lead Brie either to save the land or to destroy herself.
This second book of "The Songs of Eirren" depicts a powerful female warrior from a remote age of Irish legend. It shows her in the tenderness of young love, in the warmth of friendship, in the confusion of conflicting desires, in the terror and wonder of battle against superior numbers and magical foes, in the doubt of an honest conscience, and in the courage of a noble heart. It is a story whose themes are drawn from many springs of folklore, while its characters breathe their own distinctive, memorable life—from a mad old sea-sorcerer who babbles nonsense songs while weaving spells of power, to a comically cowardly Ellyl (elf). It features a quaint wedding that will conjure fond echoes in the hearts of those who have read Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea chronicles (particularly The Farthest Shore). And it leaves behind a tantalizing hope that its author will yet return to the retelling of Irish lore, though she has not added to this series since 1997.