Little Audrey by Ruth White: a family in postwar Virginia

Little Audrey, Ruth White, Farrar Straus Giroux, 2008, $16.00

The newest book by Ruth White, author of the Newbery Honor book Belle Prater’s Boy, is a tender yet forthright family autobiography as told from the point of view of her older sister. Released in the midst of the vampire and shopping-related mania that is today’s ’tween and young-adult fiction, Little Audrey provides a calm and powerful contrast to the hubbub of bloodletting and text-message-formatted fare.

While fantasy can often serve as a potent commentary on the present situation, or as a more generalized commentary on the human condition, of late it seems that many of the more publicized books for young adult readers are striving to avoid any issues beyond trite boy-girl relationships or fuzzy and stereotypical references to the “fight between good and evil,” with the forgone conclusion that “good” will win. White’s book provides a respite from such formulaic offerings.

Set in the coal town of Jewell Valley, Virginia, in 1948, Little Audrey deals forthrightly with the effects of poverty, illness and drunkenness. It also paints a starkly different picture from that which is often presented of the post-war years. This narrative makes clear that not all communities experienced an economic boom.

What Audrey sees and feels is laid out with an eloquent candor. What she goes through is harrowing, but, as will happen for many children caught up in such situations, there is a cool analysis of the troubles. Though she feels helpless to change much of what goes on around her, particularly her father’s drinking binges, she has the presence of mind to consider alternatives, and strength enough to know that she and her family deserve better.

The societal odds are stacked high against Audrey’s family; they are desperately poor and have experienced illness and tragic loss. Audrey is struggling to overcome the lingering effects of scarlet fever, and her mother frequently slips into what appear to be deep depressive episodes in remembering her youngest daughter, who died four years earlier, while her father drinks heavily.

A major theme in the slim volume is the lack of food—the mine’s scrip is redeemable at the company store, but a combination of low wages and the father’s trading much of it in for money to buy alcohol leaves the family hungry. Audrey’s mother makes what she can of the provisions, but often they are left short at the end of the week—even after a few days of nothing but beans—and go without a meal for 24 hours. Audrey does not recount these episodes with self-pity; rather. she understands that theirs is not the only family suffering. Indeed, in one passage she mentions the shame of having to eat mashed bean patties for lunch (after eating the same for breakfast), but remarks that she’s “seen kids bring worse things to eat for lunch.”

It is clear that Ruth White’s childhood was dire, but what is equally clear is her ability to transform the experiences of her working class upbringing into convincing prose. The characters are treated compassionately, even the bullies; and it seems that the author has a sense of the forces beyond their control motivating them. There are no “bad guys” to be defeated in Jewell Valley; there are situations to be borne, fears to overcome and actions to take. These are not hapless bumpkins, contrary to the portrayal often put forth of miners and other Southerners as being know-nothing yokels.

White’s family is far from ignorant, and some of the brighter moments revolve around the borrowing of books from a more fortunate relative. Great works of literature are read and discussed by Audrey, her mother, and her father. Art is an integral part of the family’s life; monetarily poor as they are, they do value their own minds. Any element of escape Audrey has is bound up with the stories of the Brontë sisters, particularly Wuthering Heights, scenes of which she forces into her mind in times of severe distress.

Though the book’s setting is 1948, the family’s main exposure to popular culture is through older movies brought to their remote theater. It is at such a viewing that one of the most potent commentaries on the family’s situation is disclosed. In watching Shirley Temple dancing upstairs, with her “yella curls” bouncing along, and her shining shoes, lacey socks and ruffled dress, Audrey admits a hatred for the golden child. It is an intense outburst, though not a word is spoken out loud.

Her frustration at seeing such finery, in contrast to the condition of her own sisters, who are not even wearing shoes to the theater, is palpable. One is shaken—White’s use of what has long been considered an icon of cheerfulness to point up the desperation of the working poor is delicately, beautifully handled. That such films were intended to serve as an escape from the worries of everyday life for the poor seems a slap in the face of the poverty-stricken Audrey, and inwardly she slaps back.

White’s story is one common to the working class of that time, and her eye for detail in describing the actions of those caught up in the events portrayed in this story brings the reader to a greater understanding. Her father, as so many of his generation, came out of the war years with the idea that there would be no return to the conditions of the 1920s or 1930s—that a better life was not only possible, but something to which the workers were entitled by virtue of doing that hard work.

Like so many others, disillusionment set in at his seeing that opportunity was not equal, that even in the so-called “boom years,” there were many stumbling blocks put in the way of those doing the hardest labor. The coal towns, with their company stores and their company housing, were at times little more than a slightly modified slave situation, and there were precious few other options in the area. As was and continues to be common, the conditions beat him down; unable to get ahead through the hard work, he turned to alcohol to quell the pain and shame of not being able to provide for his family.

There is a large historical omission in the book, which, though it might be an innocent oversight, is interesting in its absence. Taking place as it does in the post-war years in a mining camp, there is a peculiar lack of mention of strikes. Surely her family, if not directly involved, was at least aware of the tremendous upheaval among miners. The aforementioned determination of the men returning from the war to not sink back into the conditions  under which they labored in the years before  played out in battle after bloody battle against the mine owners.

In neglecting to tie her own family’s history in with this important element of the era, White does not present a complete picture of the troubles they faced. While it could be argued that this is a more “personal” story, concerning only her family, and meant to focus on the effects of her father’s drinking, taking the story out of the broader historical context does justice neither to the true scale of what they faced, to the underlying causes of the very addiction this story is so much concerned with, nor to the possibility at least of some alternative to the harsh conditions.

The only stylistic flaw with the book lies in its somewhat abrupt ending. It concludes on a hopeful note, with a sort of summing up of what happened to the other characters and Audrey’s plans for her own future. It could have done with a chapter or so more to flesh it out.

There was very little publicity for Little Audrey outside of industry papers, which is odd, considering the stature of Ruth White. Bell Prater’s Boy not only caught the attention of the Newbery committee; it is a commonly assigned and much-loved book in classrooms around the country. To be sure, Little Audrey has not as glamorous a collection of characters as vampires, wizards or time-travelers; what is does have is an good portrayal of something with which far too many children can identify, even in these supposedly more advanced and equitable times. No pat solutions are given by White in this work—no cure-alls for poverty, and, thank goodness, she avoids the all-too-common “then I became a famous writer” epilogue. What is offered here is a well-written work that, even with its flaws, deserves a wide audience.