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Stories that reflect the rural life

By Keith HendersonStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 1, 1986

Longwood, Fla.

THE backwoods of Vermont, where rural folk eke a living from stony soil, is worlds removed from the plush Florida neighborhood author Robert Newton Peck now calls home. But that land of hard winters and hardy Yankees remains Mr. Peck's literary dwelling. It has provided settings and characters for his most successful books -- the ``Soup'' series for pre-teen children (which has spun off some television scripts) and ``A Day No Pigs Would Die,'' his first, and many say best, book.

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The lanky writer grew up in a tiny hamlet on the western edge of the Green Mountain state, near the southernmost tip of Lake Champlain. It was ``a small town without a name, a settlement,'' he reminisces. Historic Fort Ticonderoga was nearby, and as a boy he could ``hear the hiss of arrows and smell the gunsmoke.'' That slice of American history surfaced in ``Hang for Treason'' (Doubleday, 1976), another of his 40 titles.

At a time when much of American youth is fascinated by video images, hectic music, and computers, Peck's bucolic subject matter could seem, well, irrelevant. But apparently that's not the case.

Christine Behrmann, a materials specialist with the New York Public Library's office of children's services, notes that the ``Soup'' books (various titles, published by Knopf) are read by children from all parts of the city. ``If a character is appealing, and kids like him, they don't care where the setting is,'' says Miss Behrmann. ``Soup,'' by the way, was the nickname of an irrepressible boyhood buddy of Peck's.

Between that lean, rural boyhood in Vermont and his present, comfortable life in Florida, Peck spent many years in New York, ``writing TV commercials and radio jingles.'' (That broadcast experience later paid off when Peck developed three children's television programs, one of which, ``Mr. Little,'' will appear on the ABC network this Saturday at 12 noon Eastern standard time.) In New York, he also married ``my favorite librarian,'' his wife Dorrie. They now have two teen-aged children, Chris and Anne.

During those New York years, Peck did some comedy writing, and wrote a novel about Manhattan's affluent elite.

``I was trying to be another Sloan Wilson, `Man in the Grey Flannel Suit,' '' he says, breaking into a grin. That was a dead end. As the rejection slips came sailing back, he took a hard look at his literary aspirations. Then, in 1973, it struck him: ``Why don't I just try to write a book about when I was 12 years old. About killing pigs.'' His father, a farmer who had to sweat for every dollar, had slaughtered hogs for a living. Peck drew on that vivid memory of an honest, hardworking yeoman -- illiterate, harried by poverty, but proud and wise -- to sculpt a story that quickly found a publisher, and readers.

It's a tale of a boy coming of age, guided by a father who blends sternness with affection. When that father dies, the book's enigmatic title, ``A Day No Pigs Would Die'' (Knopf, 1973), falls into place. The story spares no detail, humorous or grisly. That's very much in line with one of Peck's avowed checkpoints of good writing: ``Can it be photographed?'' If the passage doesn't measure up to that standard, he says, start it over again.

``Pigs'' was originally published as an adult title but today is recognized as something of a classic for young readers. It's often taught in middle-school English classes.