Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Reading Through History: Over the Hills and Far Away by Lavinia Russ (1968)

Over the Hills and Far Away is a 1968 novel which begins in 1917 when its main character, Peakie, is around 14 years old. Peakie is the odd one out in her family. Her older sister is more beautiful and popular than she is, and the girls' mother just does not understand Peakie's awkwardness and lack of interest in the things other girls are concerned about. Peakie has few friends aside from her father, so she makes friends with characters in books, having private conversations with them in her mind and imagining how someone like Jo March might react to the decisions she makes and the things she does. The story follows Peakie all the way through this prolonged awkward phase of her adolescence, until finally there seems to be some hope that she will find her voice, and her place, and her way.

I enjoyed Lavinia Russ's humorous essays in The Girl on the Floor Will Help You. Her droll approach to work, writing, family, and life in general is light and enjoyable, and I felt she was a bit of a kindred spirit when I read her thoughts on some of these topics. Sadly, though some of the same thoughts and beliefs that inspired her essays also inspired this book, the novel is a bit of a muddle.

Peakie is a well-developed character, but Russ could have done a much better job of ensuring that her pessimistic attitude and outright oddness wouldn't cause the reader to dislike her. Peakie is really not very sympathetic, and the reader starts out rooting for her, but runs out of patience as chapter after chapter goes by and her outlook doesn't seem to improve. It is necessary for Peakie to change in order to further the story, and Russ simply does not handle this well. She waits too long to give Peakie any glimmer of hope for true happiness and  then springs it on her all at once in an entirely unbelievable and overly abrupt ending. There is a sequel (The April Age) but somehow that doesn't seem like a sufficient excuse for rushing the conclusion of the first book.

This is a book I could take or leave. It is in some ways a refreshingly realistic alternative to the sunnier stories of the 1910s depicted in the Betsy-Tacy books, but it almost takes this approach too far, leaving readers feeling irritated that Peakie is having such a hard time with the everyday problems of adolescence. This is not quite as oppressive a view of early teenhood as a book like Up a Road Slowly, but an uplifting story about learning to be comfortable in one's own skin it simply is not. A certain type of sarcastic personality will appreciate it (maybe readers of Dear Dumb Diary and the like?) but most readers will probably be better served by a more balanced view of the teenage years. Even girls who feel like Peakie are bound to become impatient with this book.

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