1967: Up A Road Slowly (Diary of a Needy Kid)

VERDICT: Trash

Laurinda’s Rating: 2.5/5

The 1967 Newbery Medal Winner, Up a Road Slowly, is a very mixed story. The initial section of the book covers Julie’s move to the country and her life with Aunt Cordelia, a strict but loving spinster who teaches in the rural school. Julie struggles with loneliness, especially after her beloved older sister marries. Like many young children, Julie is fairly self-centered and abrasive to those around her. However, she does show growth in this section, especially after a wise train conductor gives her the advice that she isn’t the Number 1 person in all relationships. Though she doesn’t become truly empathetic towards people, she is slightly less of a little beast to those around her.

The second part of the book, as Sally discussed, is focused on Julie’s relationships with the opposite sex. I won’t repeat what Sally’s already said, but will merely add that I sat in my living room, screaming at Julie to kick her manipulative boyfriend’s butt to the curb, especially when it became ridiculously obvious that he was not just a user but also someone who was willing to take what he wanted from the relationship by force. Thankfully, Julie’s bumbling Uncle Haskell intervenes before Brett can hurt her. Of course, Julie ends up with Danny, the beloved boy who had known her since she moved in with Cordelia.

The Good
The author does an excellent job, particularly in the first part of the narrative, emphasizing the consequences of Julie’s actions and demonstrates how Julie learns from some of her bad choices. My favorite scene, although hard to read, was the repeated bullying which Julie spearheaded against a developmentally disabled (and smelly) classmate. Tired of Aggie sitting close to her, Julie invents a “game” whereby Aggie is dubbed Queen and sent to sit in the center of the circle, with the backs of everyone to her. Julie even cancels her birthday party rather than invite Aggie. Poor Aggie dies shortly thereafter, a hard event for Julie, who visited the day before Aggie died and saw the conditions in which she lived. The author includes a conversation between Julie and Uncle Haskell which presents an even harder truth. ” ‘You know very well that if this Kilpin girl could approach you again, as moronic and distasteful as she was a month ago, that you’d feel the same revulsion for her.’…He was right, of course.” Rather than jump to the easy answer of Julie swearing “Oh, I’ll never treat someone like that again”, the author forces Julie, and we the readers, to reckon with what our true behaviour might be. As someone with a disabled sister, I would have been livid at this type of treatment towards her, but I also realize how challenging it can be for children to interact with those who are different. Like many an older sister, I alternately wanted to protect my little sib from the oft cruel world and gain freedom from her to hang out with my friends without interruptions.

The integration of literature and poetry into the narrative also was well executed, with Julie developing an organic interest in it by linking classics to her life, and interpreting them through her own lens. I loved when she makes a comment about wishing Brett would quote Shakespeare, immediately followed by him calling her nicknames “from the dessert menu of a fancy restaurant”. Although we learn of Julie’s dream of being a writer relatively late in the story, enough hints are inserted along the way that it doesn’t seem out of place  when she approaches Uncle Haskell for help with her writing.

The Bad
While there were extremely thought-provoking, sensitive passages, Julie was a narrator I really had trouble empathizing with. She’s something of a tomboy (all to the good) but independent in a very prickly way, and rarely in the situations that I would have liked her to be. She feels that she needs a man, a point emphasized even by the sensible, unmarried Aunt Cordelia. This, of course, led to the whole Brett debacle. Julie rarely advances on her own merits, but rather through those of others. Even her first published piece is due to Uncle Haskell submitting it without her knowledge. Her lack of agency in the areas that matter most – career, love life, etc. bother me a lot, because we see hints early on that she could be so much stronger and less needy. Julie is always defined by her relationships with others, not by her own choices.

I think part of why this bothers me is because I’m very emphatically the opposite in that I have never defined myself in this manner or felt that I NEEDED to be with a person because of societal expectations. This theme is precisely why the book got a 2.5 from me. Otherwise, its semi-realistic portrayal of the pains of growing up might have drawn me in rather than antagonizing me. It treats hard topics, like alcoholism, death, and shifting familial relationships, with sensitivity and depth, but the dating relationships focus of the last third or so ruined the whole book.

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