Monday, April 25, 2016

The Teacher's Funeral

The Teacher's Funeral: A Comedy in Three Parts
by Richard Peck
Recommended Ages: 10+

You're not supposed to laugh at the news of someone's death, but in 1904 rural Indiana, the news comes to 15-year-old Russell Culver wrapped in a practical joke that did make me laugh. Indeed, so many things made me laugh in this book that pauses to catch my breath probably accounted for one-third of the time I spent reading it. It is the story of a boy's coming of age in a one-room country school where his bossy older sister is (suddenly) the teacher, told by an expert humorist with an ear for country speech and an eye for colorful detail. It has romance, tragedy, a bit of social satire, and a lot of historical detail about what it was like to grow up in an era (and an area) where schoolchildren didn't put shoes on, except for funerals, until there was frost on the ground. It is a completely convincing memoir of a member of its author's grandparents' generation, while at the same time dishing up non-stop laughs until your sides hurt.

The story covers only the fall semester of the school year in which Russell's sister Tansy takes over teaching at the Hominy Ridge School, with a student population of eight, ranging from a six-year-old girl nicknamed "Little Britches" to a blue-jawed, 20-ish fellow who has yet to learn his ABCs. It includes a scatter-brained boy known as "Flopears," a younger sibling whose specialty is making himself invisible, a teenage girl with a difficult attitude, a preacher's son described as "If brains were dynamite he couldn't blow his nose," and the practical-joke-pulling, pratfall-prone Russell himself, who just wants to run away to the wheat fields of South Dakota and be done with school forever.

I got a special charge out of reading this story, set in the county adjacent to one where I used to live and making references to places I know and love - though I didn't know them the way the people of 1904 knew them, when the first automobile accident on record involved a horse-drawn spring wagon, and the biggest social event of the year was hog slaughtering. I'm sure my dear friends in Terre Haute would get a kick out of this story, in which Indianapolis is described as "out east" and the idea of a vehicle traveling from Evansville to Montezuma, Ind., in one day comes as a shock to the mind.

It might be for that reason I felt included in the sense of nostalgia this story generates. But who of us is really that many generations away from a place with dirt roads and daily farm chores to be done? My grandparents were still living such a life, to some extent, when I was a little boy. I think a lot of readers, especially in the midwestern U.S., can remember hearing stories, if not experiencing firsthand, a slightly more modernized version of this story in which sheet-steel-sided threshing machines were the latest innovation, apt to draw a crowd. While there are still older people telling stories like this, that feeling of nostalgia will still be personal to many of us. And when such people are no more, their historical importance will be even greater.

Richard Peck won a Newbery Medal for A Year Down Yonder, the middle installment of his "Granny Dowdel" trilogy. His other books include the Blossom Culp quartet, Secrets at Sea and its sequel The Mouse with the Question Mark Tail, The Last Safe Place on Earth, Here Lies the Librarian, and many more.

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