Study Guide

Robert Newton Peck

Robert Newton Peck Essay - Critical Essays

Peck, Robert Newton

Introduction

Robert Newton Peck 1928–

American novelist and poet for children and young adults.

Peck's works derive their force from their effective evocation of times past. His poetry and many of his novels are set in rural Vermont, and are loosely based on his memories of his childhood spent there. A Day No Pigs Would Die, a semiautobiographical novel recounting a crucial period in a farm boy's life, became Peck's first success. He has since used his home state as the setting for a steadily popular series of novels centered on his best boyhood friend, Soup, who gets involved in every imaginable escapade available to a boy growing up in a small town during the Depression. Peck has also written several historical novels, including Fawn and Rabbits and Redcoats, both based on the battle for control of Fort Ticonderoga toward the end of the colonial era. Recently Peck has turned to burlesque with books such as Hub and Basket Case, in which characters with names like Sashay Freshmeadow or Courtney Dribble are put through a series of improbable adventures.

Many of Peck's novels illustrate the themes of the competitiveness of nature and the imminence of death by demonstrating how one boy comes to terms with them. Some critics have deplored his pessimism; it is also claimed that he creates two-dimensional characters, particularly in his generally stereotypical descriptions of women and girls. However, others find his themes and his frank exposition of them to be perceptive and refreshing. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84.)

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

["A Day No Pigs Would Die" is a charming and simple] memoir in the form of a novel about the author's upbringing in the Shaker tradition on a Vermont farm in the 1920's. Indeed so perfectly fused are the understated rhetoric and action of Mr. Peck's story that if it achieves the popularity it probably deserves, it will seem ripe for the kind of parodies that Richard Bach's "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" has lately been getting.

For so determined has Mr. Peck been to dramatize in both his story and his dialogue the lack of "frills" of the ShakeWay that he often flirts with making his characters seem ludicrously stolid and simple. And were one not caught up in the emotion of his story, one might well give over to giggling….

And though at times Mr. Peck seems on the verge of sentimentalizing the relationship of young Bob and the pig he receives as a reward for helping that cow to calve, there is really not an ounce of sentimentality in the entire book. (Coyness, yes; sentimentality, no.)

Quite the contrary: it is a stunning little dramatization of the brutality of life on a Vermont farm, of the necessary cruelty of nature, and of one family's attempt to transcend the hardness of life by accepting it. And while,… there is no rhetoric about love—in fact nobody in "A Day No Pigs Would Die" ever mentions the word love, or any other emotion, for that matter—love nevertheless suffuses every page.

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, "City Life and Country Life," in The New York Times (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 4, 1973, p. 35.∗

Pamela Marsh

Inside almost every American and quite a few Europeans there's a farm lad trying to get out. The young dream of a machine-free life and organic bread, their elders of traditional American values and home-cooked pie. Robert Peck is writing for them all [in "A Day No Pigs Would Die"]….

In showing just how earthy farm life is and how stoic a farmer and his children must be Mr. Peck spares us nothing. Vivid animal mating scenes, butcherings, a cruel economy that forces a boy to help slaughter his beloved pet pig and his father to insist that he does—we get the lot, along with delightful rural scenes and picturesque turns of speech….

I found it sometimes sickening, often entrancing. But there were also too many times when I could feel the author digging me in the ribs, self-consciously demanding my tears or my laughter.

Pamela Marsh, "What's New and Popular on the Bookshelf: 'A Day No Pigs Would Die'," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1973 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), January 17, 1973, p. 11.

Richard Todd

I fear [A Day No Pigs Would Die] is ruinously sentimental, and that the extent to which it affects … you, or me, is a measure of how much more time we all ought to spend cleaning out the chicken coop. The book is told in the voice of the boy, but, in the manner of a children's book, it is full of dialogue and images that are too clever by half, that let the author's self-approval show through. "Hear me, God," the boy cries at a climactic moment. "It's hell to be poor." The pleasure of the book is its evidence to the contrary. It invites you surreptitiously to enjoy the condition you lament. And yet it touches a subject of importance. It is offering the reader a swap: turn in your comfort and I'll give you coherence, an emotional and an actual landscape that make sense … that growing numbers of people couldn't resist….

Richard Todd, "Psychic Farming: Country Books," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1973, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 231, No. 4, April, 1973, pp. 114-20.∗

Jonathan Yardley

Robert Newton Peck has wasted few words in this modest and affecting little book ["A Day No Pigs Would Die"] … about a 12-year-old boy who learns some hard but useful lessons….

"A Day No Pigs Would Die" has been promoted in the style of "True Grit" and "Addie Pray," and probably it will appeal to readers who are hooked on easy nostalgia. But there is more to it than that. It is sentiment without sentimentality—no easy feat—and it is an honest, unpretentious book. Doubtless many adults will like it, but it would be good reading for older children, even though (or perhaps, these days, because) it gets faintly gamy in a passage or two.

Jonathan Yardley, "New Fiction: 'A Day No Pigs Would Die'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 13, 1973, p. 37.

Ethel R. Hardee

[Path of Hunters: Animal Struggle in a Meadow] is a disappointing attempt to draw attention to the beauty and brutality of nature through a series of interrelated dramas of life and death among field creatures. By portraying the activities of representative mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and insects through the four seasons, Peck clearly demonstrates the interdependence of living things and clarifies such expressions as "balance of nature" and "web of life." However, the chronicle is too poetic and its attitude of eat or be eaten is too relentlessly grim. Moreover, descriptions of animals who "ache with fatigue," "hiss with disdain," and are "insane with hunger" may disturb backyard naturalists. [Glen] Rounds's Wildlife at Your Doorstep … and Swamp Life … treat field and stream ecology more suitably for young readers.

Ethel R. Hardee, "The Book Review: 'Path of Hunters: Animal Struggle in a Meadow'," in School Library Journal, an appendix to Library Journal (reprinted from the September, 1973 issue of School Library Journal, published by R. R. Bowker Co./A Xerox Corporation; copyright © 1973), Vol. 20, No. 1, September, 1973, p. 148.

Beryl Robinson

Designed to stimulate interest in animal life in one small meadow, the author [of Path of Hunters: Animal Struggle in a Meadow] has described a considerable number of life cycles to be observed from one spring to the next…. At the time that their activities are being recorded, they are all involved in some aspect of their life cycle: mating, birth, survival, death. Details are explicit and often poetic as mates are found, homes are built, and the young are born. The struggle is continuous, the hunt for food fierce; and death stalks life in a never-ending pattern. Free from sentimentality, objective although sensitive, a coherent narrative despite the many lives described, this is first-rate nature writing....

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Nathaniel Benchley

The search for one's identity—the "Who is the real me?" syndrome—is such a well thumbed theme that it takes a good deal of novelty to make it seem fresh. In "Millie's Boy," Robert Newton Peck has thrown such a set of problems at his hero that simply to survive them is a feat of no mean proportions; the question of who he is becomes secondary, and the result is an adventure story rather than a genealogical one. This is probably just as well, because the final answer is too logical to be exciting….

The love interest is provided by Fern's niece, Amy Hallow. She has a scene with Tit, during which he tries to find a feather that got down the back of her nightgown during a pillow fight, which may...

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Zena Sutherland

A first person story, set in rural Vermont at the turn of the century, [Millie's Boy] is told with enough vigor and period detail to compensate for the heavy use of dialect and the rather pat ending…. Despite all [its] high drama, the story has vitality and a sure touch in characterization and dialogue, although the latter might be more effective were it not so larded with colloquialisms.

Zena Sutherland, "New Titles for Children and Young People: 'Millie's Boy'," in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books (© 1973 by the University of Chicago; all rights reserved), Vol. 27, No. 4, December, 1973, p. 69.

Peck starts the...

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Marilyn Sachs

Robert Peck proved himself a master of the genre [of reminiscence] with his moving and engaging book, "A Day No Pigs Would Die," based on his own boyhood in rural Vermont during the twenties. With "Soup" he is back again for another go-round, but this time it doesn't work nearly so well. Soup is the name of Peck's best friend when he was a boy. Between them, one or the other is consistently drawn into mischief…. Several of the stories are funny, and one or two are touching but by and large there is a strained quality to the writing and a hearty wholesomeness to the book that is disappointing.

Marilyn Sachs, "Mementos From the Past," in The New York Times Book Review (©...

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Zena Sutherland

There's a homespun humor and an aura of nostalgia about [the] rural anecdotes [in Soup] but the first try at smoking, the confrontation with an irritated neighbor, or the contretemps with a school nurse all seem just a little too hayseedcute, and the book lacks the variety of mood or tempo it needs to compensate for the omission of a story line.

Zena Sutherland, "New Titles for Children and Young People: 'Soup'," in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books (© 1974 by the University of Chicago; all rights reserved), Vol. 28, No. 2, October, 1974, p. 35.

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Richard Adams

[Path of Hunters] is about the lives, food-quests and deaths (as food) of various animals inhabiting an American 'meadow'. In spite of the realistic (even horrific) treatment of the animals' deaths as they prey upon one another for food, it contrives to be cosy in the manner of a certain kind of animal film spoken commentary. 'Clean at last! Nothing like a bath before bedtime!' (This of a female bat). The old fox 'was no quitter', and the marmot 'was aware of a bothersome itch on his belly'. It would be rather embarrassing stuff to read aloud, and includes sage remarks like 'Awesome weaponry often preserves peace'. (p. 663)

Richard Adams, "Fur and Feather: 'Path of...

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Edith C. Howley

["Fawn"] might be called an historical vignette, a character study, or a brief tale of the attack by the British on Fort Ticonderoga in 1758…. [It is] all told from the point of view of a sixteen-year-old boy, half Mohawk and half French…. Our sympathies are with the Indians, yet the occasional descriptions of their ways of torture make it difficult to sustain sympathy. Maybe it's really all a long sermon on the folly of war.

Edith C. Howley, "Fiction: 'Fawn'," in Best Sellers (copyright 1975, by the University of Scranton), Vol. 34, No. 22, February 15, 1975, p. 515.

Children accustomed to the charm of puppies and kittens and...

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Eden Ross Lipton

["Wild Cat" is] is a deliberate backlash to the cloying sweetness of most cat books. [It is a] harsh, brutal, detailed moralistic naturalistic [story of a miserable urban cat's life cycle]….

The saga of "Wild Cat" begins in the womb and birth canal of a mother cat who is wedged in an alley somewhere, and moves briskly from one trauma (trucks, siblings being eaten, crunch, crunch, by dogs) to another (sex, rats, loss of mate, plunge into river, birth)…. The text has a sensual enthusiasm sometimes reminiscent of old-style pornography: "Her body felt the pain and shock of her first touch of a male. But then she relaxed to accept him until his body flooded her with the hot rush of his seed."

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Zena Sutherland

[Fawn] explores the intricacies of divided allegiance during the French and Indian Wars, but it is often tediously repetitive, both in examining Fawn's childhood and in making a statement about prejudice. The writing is also occasionally careless….

Zena Sutherland, "New Titles for Children and Young People: 'Fawn'," in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books (© 1975 by the University of Chicago; all rights reserved), Vol. 29, No. 3, November, 1975, p. 52.

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Sister Alvia

The poems and their introductions [in Bee Tree and Other Stuff] relate the feelings of a boy brought up by plain people to have love for the simple life, the earth, and all living creatures. Covering a wide range of subjects, from Sarah's yearly litter of kittens to dust, tools, death, and rabbit trails, the poems are all enhanced by the rich vernacular of the poet's birthplace. A delight for readers of all ages and a treasure for teachers trying to inspire young poets to find beauty in ordinary things and events. (p. 82)

Sister Alvia, "Grades 3-6: 'Bee Tree and Other Stuff'," in School Library Journal (reprinted from the November, 1975 issue of School Library...

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Thomas Farel Heffernan

Millie's Boy continues the use of the turn of the century southern Vermont setting that Robert Newton Peck introduced in A Day No Pigs Would Die. The earlier book was a bit of family history; it described isolated rural life in a residually Shaker community, and delivered a heavy dose of ruralism somewhat on the order of descriptions that Homer Croy might have written years ago, but colored by an overly sentimental examination of the boy narrator's psychology. Even worse was the effort to turn the boy into another Huck Finn by giving him cute ways of expressing his incomprehension of the world. Colorfulness via naiveté has its limits and they are as readily detected by young as by old readers.

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John R. Pancella

The opening paragraphs [of Wild Cat] describe a birth, with the mother licking and eating the membranes, followed by another birth, on dirty rags, of a kitten that is deformed and defective. The mother eats this kitten along with the extra birth substance. This may be questionable fare for many children. It is realism, all right…. There are details about a first mouse kill and a fight to the death with a rat. The sensuous encounter with a big white tom, with the young female "hot with the sudden flush of maturity," and other vivid descriptions, leads the story full circle to another birth of kittens. This is wildlife in Manhattan, and teachers and parents should carefully consider whether to use the book with...

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Lawrence A. Howard

[Hang for Treason] opens with the annihilation of a Vermont farmer's family by the St. Francis Indians and a French advisor; the lone ten-year-old survivor, Noah Booker, can never forget the arrows through his father's face nor the shameful condition of the bodies of his mother and two sisters….

[Hang for Treason] serves as a reminder in this era of conflicting ideologies that revolution has its less than glorious aspects, that oppressors and oppressed are sometimes indistinguishable, and that death comes just as easily at the hands of friends as it does at the hands of enemies.

It's a good book; I recommend it.

Lawrence A....

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Zena Sutherland

[Like Soup, this later book, Soup and Me,] is an episodic account of the pranks of the author and his boyhood friend…. Again, a mixture of humor (of the boys-will-be-boys-and-get-into-trouble variety), small town events, and a dash of sentimentality, with characters tending to be typecast. (pp. 130-31)

Zena Sutherland, "New Titles for Children and Young People: 'Soup and Me'," in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books (© 1976 by the University of Chicago; all rights reserved), Vol. 29, No. 8, April, 1976, pp. 130-31.

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Beryl Robinson

The author [of Bee Tree and Other Stuff] celebrates his boyhood on a Vermont farm in a book that explores childhood memories of school, family and friends, hard work, the seasons, and death. A way of life and a philosophy of being are set forth clearly in a series of highly personal prose pieces, each followed by a related poem. The brief, informal comments are conversational in style and reflect the rural vernacular. Nostalgic, but not sentimental, they engender vivid, strong, sometimes earthy, often sensitive impressions of the land and the people who lived on it. Particularly moving are references to the author's father…. One can experience the smells and sounds of barns, the feel of winter, the beauty of...

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Gary Bogart

[Hang for Treason] is a freewheeling yet wholesome (hope that word doesn't put the kiss of death on it) tale of a young boy in Vermont during the Revolution…. By wholesome I do not mean to imply that the novel is all happiness and light. On the contrary, it is in some ways a rite-of-passage novel in which Able Booker experiences both good (young love) and bad (the senseless death by burning of his family). But Peck does not linger on the morbid. Instead, his robust style is attuned to the birth pangs of a new country. I hope young readers will allow themselves the pleasure of experiencing the turmoil of that birth.

Gary Bogart, "Elderly Books for Youngerly Readers:...

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Willard M. Wallace

"Rabbits and Redcoats" is Chapter Harrow's account of the part he and his friend Interest Wheelock play in Ethan Allen's capture of Fort Ticonderoga….

It is a simple, reasonably plausible tale, though only a fragment. The dialogue among the three boys rings true. Less convincing is the benign portrayal of Ethan Allen and quite unconvincing is that of Benedict Arnold, who, in some sort of clairvoyant mood, is already looking forward to defeating General John Burgoyne two years later. It is regrettable that though writing for a younger group, Mr. Peck did not retain the more valid conception of these two characters as portrayed in his recent "Hang for Treason."

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Mary M. Burns

The idea that romantic notions of war disappear in battle is the unifying theme of an attractively produced historical vignette [Rabbits and Redcoats]…. Viewed from the perspective of two teen-aged boys, the story is set within a twenty-four-hour time span. It is narrated by Chapter Harrow who, with his friend Interest Wheelock, sneaks into the ranks of the Vermont revolutionaries…. Although the ragged army is victorious over the British defenders, the two learn that defeat is not always dishonor nor victory a guarantee of dignity. They also realize that war, far from being a glorious adventure, is a blend of mundane discomforts with imminent danger. Remarkable for its spare, taut style which reflects the...

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Jill P. May

Robert Newton Peck's early books brought an understanding of the realities of rural life to many youngsters. His characterization was sharp and his themes of pride and strength well presented; he also maintained a sense of American traditions. His greatest appeal as an author has been with the young adult audience….

[If Robert Peck] hopes to establish himself firmly in the field of children's literature, he needs to develop carefully worthwhile fiction that will have a lasting appeal. King of Kazoo and Trig seem quickly produced attempts to write for younger children, and they depend on slapstick humor to hold the reader's attention. Neither has a well developed plot or theme, and in...

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Ruth M. Stein

The main question [in Last Sunday] is whether Sober McGinty will sober up long enough to finish the game for Canby. As twelve-year-old Ruth Babson narrates, we follow her from helping the drunken pitcher to fidgeting through Sunday church and dinner, eager to be with the team for which she is mascot and bat-girl…. When the fickle fans turn on McGinty, our gusty heroine learns there are more important things than winning a ball game. In picturesque Vermont vernacular and with baseball savvy, Peck makes one hysterical afternoon a metaphorical comic/tragedy of the human condition.

Ruth M. Stein, "Book Remarks: 'Last Sunday'," in Language Arts (copyright © 1977 by...

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George Gleason

The supposedly humorous gimmick [in Patooie] is a watermelon-seed spitting contest in the small town of Willetsberg in the 1930's. Standing in for the local seed-spitting champ … is a Methodist Bishop's fat wife. Mrs. Milo Dookit Brimstone can spit a seed almost 32 feet, likes drinks other than Methodist punch, and converses in an earthy (though not ribald) manner. Even with such extravagantly named townies as Leak Riley and Hunk Harlocker on the scene, it's all too thin and too strained, and the character of the Bishop's wife and daughter (immorally advanced for her young years) might offend more readers than it would amuse.

George Gleason, "Junior High Up: 'Patooie',"...

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Mary M. Burns

References to the presidential race between Roosevelt and Landon in 1936 help to establish the setting [of Soup for President] for a nostalgic view of an era when youthful high jinks were interpreted as boyish pranks rather than as juvenile delinquency. Engaged in a project devised by their perceptive teacher, Robert's best friend Soup competes against the enchanting Norma Jean Bissell for the school presidency…. The conclusion, by today's standards, may disappoint those who would prefer Norma Jean to be more militant and less romantic, but in the context of the time and place, her attitude is believable. In contrast to John Fitzgerald's stories of the Great Brain …, the book's style and tone suggest adult...

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Zena Sutherland

The various incidents of [Trig Sees Red] are concerned with the firing of an elderly traffic policeman and the substitution of a hanging traffic light at Clodsburg's one busy intersection. It's all slapstick comedy that depends on people getting into fights, falling down, jeering at each other, and making stupid errors—to say nothing of talking like naive ignoramuses. Trig and her pals make much of being Junior G-Men and hovering about, cheering each small disaster and hoping Pop the Cop will be reinstated. The disaster humor may appeal to some readers, but the overblown and unrelieved farce eventually erodes even the humor.

Zena Sutherland, "New Titles for Children and...

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Mary G. Westhuis

An example of the humor that pervades Basket Case …, the following quote introduces two stars from Visigoth movies who attend a school dance: "Tungsten Rampart played the hero on television's most futuristic afternoon sex opera, Bionic Zipper. His wife, her long blond hair spewing from every fertilized follicle, now called herself Plethora Innerspring-Rampart, and was a faucet of femininity." (Visigoth Productions is also responsible for the films "Pre-Natal Junkie," "Pre-Natal Junkie in the Klan," and the romantic "Vasectomy Is Never Having to Say You're Sorry.") Graffiti Prep School has its share of problems, but this novel has more. Robert Newton Peck's humor belongs in a third-rate night club.

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Emily C. Farnsworth

Peck dedicates Clunie to Professor Wilber Dorsett of Rollins College who inspired the story—then adds:

             But I dedicate this book to kids
             who can never read it, hoping that
             the kids who can will care—

Which is precisely why this reviewer recommends Clunie. She hopes it might raise some consciousness about the sensitivities and needs of retarded teenagers….

The reviewer feels that Peck, however, may be resting on his laurels. Characterization is really shallow. Braddy (and his overworked, underpaid, widowed mother)...

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Jenny L. Amy

In his usual fashion, Robert Peck has produced a book which will appeal to young adults…. The plot [of Eagle Fur] is well structured, the story fast moving and the characters well developed. The story gives a good representation of life on the frontier and of the bleak and savage atmosphere of the times. The description of the fur trade business and the expeditions of the traders is skillfully woven into the story.

The character of Ensign Owen McKee, a young Scottish soldier and map-maker introduces the rising conflict between Britain and France in 1754. Romantic interest is provided by Doe, an Indian girl who belongs to Benet yet is loved and worshipped by Abbott. This powerfully written...

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Patricia Lee Gauch

Robert Newton Peck has never been more the consummate storyteller than in ["Clunie", a] book about Clunie Finn, a retarded farm girl caught in a web of adolescent cruelty.

Using a breathless present-tense narrative, he puts into play four very different teenagers who want something strangely similar out of the spring season….

Then he lets them loose in a series of alternately gentle and startling chapters, each putting a block on the scale that inevitably tips toward a rainy May afternoon tragedy.

One can occasionally fault the folksy rural dialect, wonder at Clunie's almost-perfect wisdom, and be infuriated with the one-sided treatment of Sally; nonetheless,...

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