Bildungsroman. There’s a word for tongues to trip over. It’s the fancy name for “coming-of-age” stories, but most particularly ones that take the main character from youth to adulthood (or pretty close). Examples include Tristram Shandy, David Copperfield, the Harry Potter septet, Jane Eyre, A Wizard of Earthsea, and Anne of Green Gables. There doesn’t have to be a plot per se, not like what you’d find in a mystery or romance or thriller. If anything, these books are closer to real life — things happen and we move on, some issues resolve, while others open up to new problems.
Hunt’s novel is told in the first person by the heroine, Julie Trelling. It begins when Julie is seven, just after her mother has died, the day before Julie is taken to live with her Aunt Cordelia. It ends when Julie graduates from high school. She begins as an unhappy, short-tempered girl who blackens a boy’s eye when he kisses her. She ends as …. Ok, I won’t spoil the ending for you.
The writing here is leisurely, allowing Julie time to analyze her own feelings and those of others, and to appreciate the beauty around her. There’s a particular moment, when she wakes one morning recovered from heartbreak, that I loved for what it says about life. Julie explains:
I was neither angry nor contemptuous; I just remembered a beautiful boy I had once loved and it was as if something inside me said, “Well, wasn’t that lovely? And now, shall we think of other things?”
In other words, if I may quote Elvis Costello, “Let’s talk about the future now, we’ve put the past away.”
As Julie’s understanding of others deepens, what she reveals of them expands. Her strict Aunt Cordelia, her older sister Laura who deserts Julie by getting married, her friends Danny and Lottie — all are complex multi-dimensional beings. The most tragic character here is Julie’s Uncle Haskell: alcoholic, aimless, alone. Modern readers might interpret him as a closet homosexual, especially given the strange explanation for the “distortion” in his character. Julie’s relationship with him grows over time, as he reveals his strengths and weaknesses. It’s a touching picture and my favorite aspect of the book.
A couple of warnings. That black eye: Julie’s brother and another boy hold her arms as a third boy kisses her. Very discomfiting for any feminist, especially since Julie is the only one who gets into trouble. And later, her Aunt Cordelia tells Julie that a woman isn’t complete unless she’s been loved by a man. Oh really?
Newbery Fun Fact: In two winners (1930 and 1947) a doll was the main character.