QUEENIE PEAVEY

By Robert Burch (1966)

THE VERY first thing the reader learns about Queenie Peavey is that she chews tobacco. Don't go bringing the surgeon general into this -- the year is about 1935, and the place is rural Georgia. The teachers, etc., who disapprove of this 13-year-old girl biting into a plug of Brown Mule are not worried that it might be hazardous to her health. They just think it's unladylike.

The second thing the reader learns about Queenie Peavey is that she is better than any other girl or boy in the eighth grade at throwing rocks. The third thing is that the local judge wants to see her.

Before the first chapter is over, the reader has watched Queenie, accompanied by two male friends, both 12-year-olds, saunter over to the courthouse, where she is supposed to meet Judge Lewis. A trial is under way and the three children sit down in the courtroom to wait. To pass the time, they each take a chew of Brown Mule. No sin in that: The courtroom is generously furnished with spittoons. But Queenie can't resist spitting at the woodstove instead -- it makes a fine hiss and crackle when she hits. The judge is naturally furious.

The reader has also seen Queenie walking home, heard a town kid taunting her because her father is in jail, and watched her retort with two well-aimed stones. (She is throwing to scare, not to hit. This is a little kid.) And the reader has seen her bring down a squirrel 60 feet up in an oak tree with one perfectly aimed stone, greatly annoying a town lady who disapproves for the squirrel's sake, for the sake of southern womanhood and on several other grounds as well. Queenie, unperturbed, takes the dead squirrel on out to the run-down little farm where she and her mother live; it will be the centerpiece of their supper.

By now the reader may think he has encountered one of those well-known caricatures of rural southern life, designed chiefly to give urban southerners and northerners of all kinds a pleasing sense of superiority. Al Capp's comic strip "L'il Abner" was like that, with a bit of sex thrown in.

The reader would be quite mistaken. Queenie Peavey (available as a Puffin paperback, $3.95) is certainly a vivid book, and Queenie herself has a stronger personality than most, though not all, of the 13-year-olds I have known. But in no way is it caricature. On the contrary, the book seems to me a wonderfully sensitive and accurate evocation of the way children really deal with each other and simultaneously a nice portrait of a small southern high school 60 years ago. Nor is that all. At the heart of the book is the account of how an early adolescent successfully copes with the loss of an illusion that has been central to her life: When Daddy gets home, everything will be all right.

To sense the richness of the book, you need only go on to the second chapter. It's as quiet as the first chapter was rowdy. Queenie has now walked almost the whole mile and a half out from town to the two-room cabin where she and her mother live. Right now she is passing Elgin Corry's little farm -- the Corrys are the only other people on the washed-out old road. They're a black family with a much better house than the Peaveys (it's brick, and Elgin built it), but otherwise on the same subsistence level.

Elgin has two children, an 8-year-old son named Dover and a 5-year-old daughter named Avis. Both consider Queenie a good friend. There's nothing in the least virtuous or let's-all-be-interracial-together about this. Those three are all the kids there are in the neighborhood, and in perfect unself-consciousness they spend a lot of time together. Dover and Queenie are particularly fond of telling improbable stories to Avis. At 5, Avis is an imaginative but exceedingly gullible child. They are able to convince her that, for example, the old family dog is an expert tree climber, often to be seen at the tops of the taller pines.

This particular afternoon, Dover and Avis can only stay at Queenie's a little while; then Queenie is home alone. Her mother works long days for low pay at the local cannery and by the time she has walked home from her job it is usually dark. So Queenie does the chores. Today that means she skins the squirrel, feeds the chickens and splits the next day's stovewood. Then, in a charming kind of idyll, she pretends that Ol' Dominick, the rooster, is an appreciative audience asking her to sing and she sings the old song "Foolish Questions" for him. It is no pretense but plain fact that Dominick is a pet. He is Queenie's chief company when Dover and Avis aren't around and he is a good deal smarter (and more affectionate) than most city people ever dream a chicken can be. I have known one or two Vermont chickens like him.

By now it is getting dark. Queenie goes over to Elgin's barn where, by prearrangement, she milks their one cow. The Peavey cowshed collapsed some years back. Letting Queenie use his barn is not just charity on Elgin's part: In return he gets to graze his team of mules in the Peaveys' pasture when his own grass runs short. Worn-out though it is, it still can handle more than a single cow.

The book more or less alternates this way, with Queenie being a trouble-maker at school in town and a hard-working, hard-studying lonesome child in the country. Then her father comes home on parole. There is an almost unbearably sad chapter as the excited Queenie tries to treat him as a loving father and gets rebuff after rebuff. There is also a sharp realistic touch concerning the neighbors. As soon as Elgin Corry hears that Mr. Peavey is home, he forbids his children to go over to Queenie's any more. He's not being a snob about a convict, like some of the people in town. He's just well aware, though he never says it plainly, that Mr. Peavey might order them off the place, and call them some very unpleasant names as he did so.

The book ends -- well, I guess I'm not going to say how it ends, since my aim is to tempt people to read it. But I virtually guarantee that you'll like the ending.

One warning: the book does have a quality that some people may regard as a fault. Certain of its characters get preachy from time to time. Myself, I don't consider that a fault. Jesus got preachy from time to time, too -- and was rightly admired for it. There is good preaching and bad preaching. Good preaching is a wonderful thing, in real life and, yes, in novels, too. In Queenie Peavey the sermon is on courage, and for a reader of almost any age, it is a stirring one to hear.

Noel Perrin teaches American literature at Dartmouth.