Robert Newton Peck Jill P. May

Start Your Free Trial

Jill P. May

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Download Robert Newton Peck Study Guide

Subscribe Now

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 neither can one find the stylistic excellence of A Day No Pigs Would Die or Hang for Treason. Last Sunday, on the other hand, is written for the young teen and is a more valuable piece of literature.

King of Kazoo, Peck's attempt at fantasy (and musical comedy) is his poorest work. His characters are all absurd, and the episodes are ridiculous. All the conversations are annoyingly clever; many are simply silly. The plot resembles The Wizard of Oz by [L. Frank] Baum, but this author shows no ability to create worthwhile action through wooden characters. After the first ten pages no real drama is presented. Furthermore, Peck's rhymes and music are so poor that a school child could do better. (p. 36)

The heroine is a stereotyped eye-batting female whose occupation as a plumber is overshadowed by her crying and nonsensical chatter. In addition, all the males take great notice of her beauty, but little notice of her brains. Peck's characterization supports traditional attitudes toward women, their beauty, and their roles….

It is curious that in Trig, Peck's main character is a young tomboy whose greatest moment comes after she gets a "genuine Melvin Purvis official Junior G-man machine gun," begins to play with two boys, and talks them into scaring her Aunt Augusta…. [Trig] dislikes dresses, hates baths, loves playing rough, and names her Shirley Temple doll Fred. Her sense of humor is absolutely sick; her child-like capers remind one of a junior Bonnie and Clyde. Peck introduces us, through the fast packed action of one afternoon, to a young girl who is insensitive toward others and who enjoys seeing others suffer physical pain. The amazing thing about Trig is that it is obviously supposed to be funny. (p. 37)

The setting is Vermont in the 1930's. The adults are depicted as either grotesque monsters or well meaning backwoods folks bent upon spoiling Trig. It is interesting to guess who is supposed to read and enjoy Trig…. The main character seems to have problems coping with her sexual identity. She surrounds herself with male idols and companions until one wonders if she might hate the idea of associating with anything feminine. Her leadership and daring causes problems for everyone else involved. Unlike Maurice Sendak's audacious heroine in The Sign on Rosie's Door, Trig is not a positive leader of children's games. Peck tried to humorously write about a rural child's activities, but instead he created a short, violent tale unsuitable for younger children.

[Last Sunday] has some of the qualities his earlier books contained. His conversations seem real, his setting is clearly defined and he adeptly tells the story of an alcoholic who drinks himself to death. But, unlike his earlier books, this book doesn't fully develop what is a worthwhile theme. Instead he writes his baseball story into an unbelievable panoramic spectacle…. [So] much happens that the story's impact is lost.

However, not only is the plot unrealistic, the characters are also hard to believe. Why has Peck determined that his main characters should be girls? It seems quite implausible that this small town of the 1930's would have a bat girl, and that her best friend would be the team pitcher, especially since he is also the town drunk. It should be noted that once Ruth hangs up her dress and puts on her uniform she is for all practical purposes a boy. Girls will not enjoy the story; much of the plot reads like a play by play report of the game. Boys who like to read sports stories will find much of the hoopla intruding. (pp. 37-8)

Yet, the book is intriguing. It is much like a patchwork quilt whose many decorative pieces must be carefully surveyed in order to determine their total worth. And, although it can be quickly read, it is not easily forgotten…. It is not great; the pieces don't fit together smoothly enough for it to be read twenty years from now. But it is definitely American regional fiction with a new twist.

Hopefully, Peck is through portraying female heroes in male stories. It's not pleasant reading. Certainly he cannot build a wide children's audience with these three books. (p. 38)

Jill P. May, "'The King of Kazoo,' 'Last Sunday,' and 'Trig,'" in The World of Children's Books (© 1977 by Jon C. Stott), Vol. II, No. 2, Fall, 1977, pp. 36-8.

Peck turns to Revolutionary America again [in The King's Iron] … for the story of Henry Knox … who drags 60 tons of cannon 300 miles from Fort Ticonderoga to the defense of Boston at General Washington's order. Tagging along are Natty Bumppo/Chingachgook (Lone Ranger/Tonto) caricatures called Durable Hatch … and Blue Goose, a Huron warrior. Also in tow is Cotton Mayfield Witty, a vain-stupid Virginia boy in love with his horse, who is supposed to "warp" into "manhood" in the army. All these horny, preoccupied good ol' boys lust after women … and use them as excuse … for racism and casual murder. Peck's style is alternately coy ("Tarry a bit … and ponder a whit") and lurid ("A wild flower blooming in the dark, and only for him to pluck and smell and devour"). And his definition of manhood ("Boys want and men take") is blissfully Neanderthal. Knox's trek was, if not heroic, at least hard. This book cheapens history and people.

"Fiction: 'The Kings Iron'," in Kirkus Reviews (copyright © 1977 The Kirkus Service, Inc.), Vol. XLV, No. 17, September 1, 1977, p. 952.