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29 May 2004 THE TEACHER'S FUNERAL: A COMEDY IN THREE PARTS by Richard Peck, Dial, October 2004, ISBN: 0-8037-2736-4


A new Richard Peck book? Hey, that's music to my ears!


"Now we were walking up from the lot when we heard music, of all things.

"It stopped us cold. We'd never heard music hanging like haze over the blue evening. I recalled the calliope on the Case Special, trilling down the track. But we were miles from the railroad, and this was a full orchestra, with violins."


Back when I was a kid, we bought our music on vinyl and played it on phonographs. As long as I can remember, I've always had an ear tuned to the newest songs on the radio, and there were hundreds of tunes with which I passionately fell in love. I would hop on my Huffy banana bike and pedal down to the store so that I could add to my stacks of 45s. (They had one song on each side.)


In contrast to someone's absolutely exquisite single--say Junior Walker's "What Does it Take to Win Your Love For Me" or (more recently) The Church's "Under the Milky Way"--it was rare to discover whole albums, or even whole sides of albums, that were consistently exceptional.


As would make sense, I can say that the artists who created those albums that I loved all the way from one end to the other became my favorite bands. That's what The Beatles' LPs always did for me. It was the same with the Moody Blues. Bowie did it with Ziggy Stardust, Zappa with We're Only in it for the Money, Kantner with Blows Against the Empire, Todd Rundgren with Another Live. (I still savor sitting up front at his Wollman Rink show when he was recording it.) The Dead did it over and over and over again. (This is fun!) How about More Songs about Buildings and Food or My Aim is True? Queen did it with A Night at the Opera, Suzanne Vega with Solitude Standing, Ani with Not A Pretty Girl.


Those are the thoughts that come to mind as I write, yet again, about the work of Richard Peck. This time it is in regard to his fifth straight novel set entirely or partly around the earlier portions of the 20th century. And what I think is this: Putting those five books together would sure make one heck of an LP.


"On one of the Fridays, Little Britches said she'd learned a poem by heart and wanted to give it as her party piece for Elocution. So Tansy let her, and we all settled back to listen as Little Britches sashayed to the center of the rostrum, gathered her hands, and elocuted in a high voice that rang like a little bell:


Adder in the desk drawer,

Aunt Fanny in the ditch;

Life here at Hominy Ridge

Surely is a---


"With an almighty thwack, Tansy brought her pointer down on the desk. Little Britches jumped.

" 'Who taught you that so-called verse?'

"Little Britches pointed me out and said, 'Russell Culver.' "


In 1904 Russell Culver is a fifteen-year-old farm boy living in rural Indiana, and is one of a half-dozen or so students readying for another year at Hominy Ridge School, when their mean, old teacher Miss Myrt Arbuckle up and dies.


"If your teacher has to die, August isn't a bad time of year for it. You know August. The corn is earring. The tomatoes are ripening on the vine. The clover's in full bloom. There's a little less evening now, and that's a warning. You want to live every day twice over because you'll be back in the jailhouse of school before the end of the month."


Hoping that perhaps they'll just close the school down, dreaming and scheming about taking off and riding the rails to Nebraska for the fall harvest in October, the last thing Russell expects to happen is for his big sister, Tansy, to not go away for her last year of high school as planned but, instead, to become their new teacher.


"The thought of Tansy having a look at my orthography brought me near to tears. It was almost the last thing you'd want a sister looking at."


THE TEACHER'S FUNERAL gives readers a look at the dawn of the automobile age. There's a noticeable difference in the America of Russell Culver from that--just twelve years later--of Howard Leland Hutchings, the fifteen-year-old we encounter in Richard Peck's last novel, the award-winning THE RIVER BETWEEN US.


But on the other hand, THE TEACHER'S FUNERAL has got a groove that fits right in with Peck's previous four novels: the humor, the chores, the vittles, the multigenerational cast of the good, the bad, and the ornery. And there's something about the way Richard Peck portrays his rural settings that makes me want to go stand outside in my goat pasture and breathe deeply.


"Me and Lloyd were up ahead of the chickens. We worked a seven-day week anyway, even in this quiet season. As Dad said, the only man who got his work done by Friday was Robinson Crusoe. And we were a corn, wheat, hay, and hogs farm in a never-ending round of chores, plus the milking."


You know how when a great old song comes on, and the first notes take you right back to when you were there experiencing it for the first time? Well, Richard Peck is always doing the same thing to me, and I wasn't even there in the first place!


Plenty of kids will relate to Russell's dilemma of suddenly having a bossy older sibling become a legitimate figure of authority. And readers will similarly identify with one or more of Russell's classmates, because there are so many things about being a student that just don't change.


" 'That howling only means but one thing,' Charlie remarked, 'and you know what."


It means that children's publishing's "The King" has done it once again.


Richie Partington




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