Stories that reflect the rural life

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

Peck's autobiographical novel ``will stand up against any book of that type,'' says Sally Estes, editor of young adult books for Booklist, a publication of the American Library Association. She, like some other close observers of children's literature, criticizes a number of the author's later works as overwritten and lacking a clear story line, but readily praises that first effort. ``A Day No Pigs Would Die'' is an ``all-ages thing,'' says the Booklist editor, something that can be read by people at various levels.

With that book, Peck tapped a lode of personal experience -- his early years doing farm chores, getting in and out of trouble with friends (the stuff of the ``Soup'' books), and absorbing impressions of people, nature, and things. Those impressions invariably come back to him, he says, sparking new characters and sometimes whole books.

The memory of a traveling boxing show provided grist for Peck's 1984 book ``Dukes.'' It's a tale about two tough men, a grizzled old promoter named ``Nose,'' and his boxer, a huge deaf-mute called ``Baptist.'' By purest accident, it seems, they become family for an abandoned baby girl. This story is set not in Vermont but on the rural byways of Florida.

Leaning back in a patio chair, Peck recalls the scene where Nose and the little girl, Lucky, leave a store without the new dress she so badly needs. Lucky wants the money to go instead, toward the place of their own that Nose keeps promising her. ``I cried when I wrote it,'' he says, adding, ``that's what writing is like.''

Can't such emotion sometimes spill over into triteness? Peck has heard this line of criticism before. With a wave of the hand, he observes simply: ``One man's sentiment could be another man's sentimentality.''

Another tear-producing scene occurs in ``A Day No Pigs Would Die'' when young Rob leads a beloved pet porker into the barn where Haven Peck, his father, will kill the animal. He has no choice -- the family needs meat for the winter. His grief-stricken son, bred in the ways of farm life, understands that instinctively.

People who do what they have to do, no matter how hard it is -- that's one of Peck's themes. There are others. ``I like to write about poor people who look at rainbows,'' he says, ``about people who care about each other.''

His own rainbows came into view during early years spent digging potatoes, cleaning out hen houses, helping a blacksmith. Reading and writing were an integral part of that vision. No mean ambition for someone raised in a family that owned but one book -- the Bible -- and cherished those occasions when a literate friend dropped by to read from it.

Peck's vision was nurtured by a meticulous spinster who ran the one-room schoolhouse he attended as a boy. Miss Kelly made a point of both discipline and encouragement, ``instilling in us all the sterling, character-building Vermont virtues and values.'' One of the things in life he's proudest of is that Miss Kelly lived to see his success as a writer.

Like many of his opinions on things political and social, Peck's views on education seem to spring directly from his own up-by-the-bootstraps beginnings. ``My theory of education,'' he says, is learning ``through experience, more than out of a classroom. . . . Research is a dirt road! It is getting off pavement to find the . . . rural sachems of distant domains, unwashed, unread, yet rarely unwise. Don't go to talk. Go to listen.''

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