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Little Audrey

Little Audrey

4.6 3
by Ruth White

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"What else would you wish for?" Daddy says. "If you could have anything in the world, what would you wish for?"
I shrug. "Oh, I don't know. Maybe . . ."
"Maybe what?"
"For us to live better than we do."
He does not say anything.

In 1948, award-winning


"What else would you wish for?" Daddy says. "If you could have anything in the world, what would you wish for?"
I shrug. "Oh, I don't know. Maybe . . ."
"Maybe what?"
"For us to live better than we do."
He does not say anything.

In 1948, award-winning author Ruth White lived in Jewell Valley, a coal camp nestled between the hills of southwestern Virginia, with her mother, still mourning for a baby who died four years earlier; her father, who spent the weekends and most of his pay out drinking; and her three older sisters, Audrey, Yvonne, and Eleanor. Told in Audrey's voice, this is how the author imagines Audrey's experiences during a time of great trauma for the White family – and what happened before they were able to live a better life.

This snapshot of life in a coal camp, complete with everyday heartaches and joys – as well as stories, songs, and jokes – is Ruth White's most personal work to date.

Little Audrey is a 2009 Bank Street - Best Children's Book of the Year.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Audrey's voice is so vivid and believable that we see this world through her eyes, with her delicate mixture of innocence and experience . . . all the more poignant knowing that the real-life Audrey was the author's oldest sister, and this is her own family story--lovingly and unsentimentally rendered.” —Newsday

“White offers a heartfelt story of what it's like to be poor, hungry, and sometimes happy. . . . Fierce in its honesty. . . . The first-person narrative allows readers to see clearly, through Audrey's damaged eyes, the real people who inhabit this world, a place where smiles come from a movie or a piece of candy, and how hunger or the fear of its taints everything. A tough, tender story.” —Starred, Booklist

“Characters are carefully drawn and nuanced . . . . A little gem. ” —Starred, School Library Journal

“White's precise words bring every character fully to life. Though the real Audrey died in 1993, she shines in these pages--a beautiful, quiet heroine who takes on the burden of remembering.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Gritty details and hill-country vernacular skillfully evoke a sad, hardscrabble life.” —Publishers Weekly

“It's got an immediacy and impact that should appeal to readers just getting the hang of family sagas.” —Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books

“The setting is perfectly portrayed and the characterizations ring true.” —VOYA

Publishers Weekly

White recrosses autobiographical territory first covered in Sweet Creek Holler, this time through the perspective of her oldest sister, sixth-grade Audrey, who narrates. The family is eking out a hand-to-mouth existence in a coal mining camp; Daddy spends his meager pay on liquor instead of food; Mommy is stoic but often emotionally absent, mourning the death in infancy, four years earlier, of the family's fifth daughter. Longing for a better life, Audrey has recently overcome scarlet fever, which has left her painfully thin and vulnerable to taunts. She has honest disdain for her bothersome sisters-the three little pigs, she calls them-and total admiration for her teacher. Gritty details and hill-country vernacular skillfully evoke a sad, hardscrabble life. The story is stronger in delineating character and setting than it is in narrative development, and its most lasting appeal may lie in the insights it provides into White's other books. Ages 10-up. (Sept.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Children's Literature - Renee Farrah
Audrey is the oldest of four girls, which means she remembers things her younger sisters do not. She remembers the death of her new baby sister and the drunken episodes during which her father spent their food scrips at the bar, but most of all she notices how these things affect her surroundings. Audrey and her family live in Jewell Valley, a coal camp in Virginia. The people of her community are connected by the fact that the men work in the coal mines and the families live in meager conditions. Audrey steps closer to adulthood as she takes care of her sisters and looks beyond herself to notice the moods of her mother. At times, she can tell her mother is distant because she is thinking about the loss of her youngest daughter; when that happens, it may take days for her mind to resurface. Audrey also watches the relationship between her parents, and how it changes when her father drinks. Based on the author's life as seen through the eyes of her oldest sister, this is a dark, heartbreaking view of a family that faces tragedies, but also recognizes there's nowhere to go but up. It is a profound coming-of-age story that focuses on responsibility and sibling relationships. Reviewer: Renee Farrah
VOYA - Jane Van Wiemokly
White offers several fictional stories based on her real life growing up in a coal mining camp in Virginia. Here she allows her older sister Audrey to tell her story of when she was eleven in 1948, with her three younger sisters, a mother who mentally disappears from time to time thinking of her deceased baby, and a father who drinks. The poverty is all-encompassing, aggravated by her father who gets paid in scrips, paper in place of money that buys food or other products from the coal company store. Unfortunately most of his scrips go toward alcohol, leaving Audrey's mother struggling to feed the family. Hunger and lack of clothing, hygienic facilities, and the basics that are taken for granted add to a picture of unrelenting privation with a seeming lack of a way to better their lives. Only after her father dies in a car wreck is there a glimmer of a better life with the prospect of the family moving to Roanoke to be near an aunt. Audrey is a survivor of disease, poverty, and hunger. Although the story is slight, the setting is perfectly portrayed and the characterizations ring true. Audrey looks up to her schoolteacher and her mother, for caring and doing the best one can in their circumstances. It is not a bad lesson to subtly bring out for the discerning reader. Reviewer: Jane Van Wiemokly
School Library Journal

Gr 4-7

In the voice of her sister Audrey at age 11, White has created a fictionalized memoir of her life as a child in a Virginia coal mining camp. It is 1948, and the family is living in grinding poverty with an alcoholic father and a mother who suffers periods of depression. School bullies torment Audrey, calling her Skeleton Girl (her weight "fell off" during a bout of scarlet fever), and dare her to climb the water tank at night and walk around the perimeter. Shining through the gloom are Audrey's friendship with classmate Virgil, whose cleverness averts the potential water-tank catastrophe, and the compassion of her teacher, Miss Stairus, beloved by all. Audrey's physical hunger and her longing for a better life are palpable, but it is only through tragedy that a better future emerges for the Whites. Details of setting and time are pitch perfect; spare, lyrical language combines skillfully with dialect; and humor infuses the story as the kids share jokes, including some based on the "Little Audrey" comic strip. Characters are carefully drawn and nuanced, and there is neither saccharine sentimentalism in Audrey's relationship with her younger sisters whom she calls the three little pigs, nor are her father and his enabling parents demonized. A note to readers and cover and interior photographs of Audrey and her mother and sisters make this story all the more real and compelling. A little gem.-Marie Orlando, Suffolk Cooperative Library System, Bellport, NY

Kirkus Reviews
White speaks through her older sister Audrey's voice in this mostly autographical account of life in a Virginia coal camp in 1948. Eleven-year-old Audrey, bookish, smart and still frail from a long winter's illness, takes care to notice everything around her: the beauty of the mountains, the ugliness of the squalid camp and, most importantly, the people. These are her three sisters, whom she calls "the three little pigs," her beloved teacher, her daddy, who drinks too much too often but works hard digging coal every day and her mother, who fades in and out of depression but saves coins to treat the girls to movies once a week. When Daddy dies, Audrey is old enough to understand that it's both the best and worst thing that could happen to their family-and to grieve that any part of his loss could bring joy. White's precise words bring every character fully to life. Though the real Audrey died in 1993, she shines in these pages-a beautiful, quiet heroine who takes on the burden of remembering. (Historical fiction. 10-14)

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
5.71(w) x 7.05(h) x 0.71(d)
630L (what's this?)
Age Range:
10 - 14 Years

Read an Excerpt

Little Audrey


It is a golden day in May 1948. The air fairly sparkles with sunshine. The sky is hard and glassy like a marble, and the new green of the hills is emerald. I am eleven years old, but in November I will be twelve, which is nearabout grown up. I am in the sixth grade, and I am walking home from school with Virgil. He is the new boy, just moved here from Kentucky.

"I like the color of your eyes, Audrey," he says to me.

"Which one?" I ask him.

"What do you mean?"

"Which eye?"

He is stumped.

"One of my eyes is blue, Virgil, like my mommy's and daddy's and the three little pigs', but the other eye is gray like nobody else's in the family."

He leans in close to look under my glasses. I don't know another kid in the world besides me who has to wear glasses. Mommy says it was the scarlet fever. It settled in my eyes. And it made me skinny.

Virgil is so near, I can smell the starch in his clothes. His mommy keeps him nice.

"Well, I'll be a monkey's uncle," he says. He's always throwing in a monkey somehow or other. Virgil says he likes animals better than most anything, but he has a peculiar soft spot for monkeys, even though he's never met one face-to-face.

"Which color do you like, Virgil?"

"Both of them. They're pretty. You're pretty."

That makes me smile. Virgil is nice to everybody. He knows a hundred jokes, and all the girls want to hang around him, but he likes me better than anybody else. He wanted to walk home with me, not with Hazel or Grace or any of the boys either.

We are walking on the dirt road in Jewell Valley, which is a coal camp in southwest Virginia. Jewell Valley is set in a deep valley with mountains rising up on either side of us.

There's a creek at the base of one mountain. The road is in the middle, and a row of houses is against the other mountain. The black winter mud is dried up on the road. Soon it will be time for the black dust. But it's nice now, without mud or dust.

"What—who's the three little pigs?" Virgil wants to know.

"My sisters. Yvonne is eight, Eleanor is seven, and Ruth Carol is six. I call them the three little pigs 'cause they hog all the food."

"I know what you mean," he tells me. "I have a little brother."

"Just one?"

"One's enough."

He's right about that. I have wondered lots of times why Mommy and Daddy just kept on getting babies even after they knew there was not enough of anything to go around.

"Speaking of pigs," Virgil says, "do you know what happened when the pigpen broke?"


"The pigs had to use a pencil!"

We laugh. "I like you, Virgil," I tell him. "You're funny and smart."

He glances behind us.

"Uh-oh, here they come," he says, and I know he's talking about Thurman and Ron Keith, two real mean boys from our class. I take a deep breath.

"Well, if it ain't Little Audrey and the prissy boy," Thurman calls out.

We turn to look at them, but go on walking.

"What do y'all want?" I say. They are right on our heels.

"We got a dare for you, Little Audrey," Ron Keith says.

It's always a dare with these two. I dare you this. I dare you that. In Jewell Valley, when you get dared to do something, you have to do it. There's no way out of it. 'Cause if you don't do it, you will be made fun of for the rest of your life.

But after you do the dare, the one who dares you has to do it, too. Last summer Thurman and Ron Keith dared me to rub poison ivy on my face. And like a moron I did, then they did. A few dayslater we were all laid up with our eyes swole shut.

"You two are exasperating!" I say. It's a word our teacher, Miss Stairus, uses all the time, and I adore her with all my heart. Everybody adores her, even mean boys like Ron Keith and Thurman.

"You kids are exasperating," Miss Stairus will say to us, but she is smiling when she says it. I like the way she calls us kids instead of young'uns, like all the other grownups do.

But when that word exasperating comes from me, it tickles Ron Keith's and Thurman's funny bones.

"His—ass—what?" Ron Keith hoots, and they go into hysterics.

Did I say they also have dirty minds? Well, they do.

"You're not so smart!" Ron Keith says. "Fancy words don't make you smart!"

"Smarty, Smarty had a party!" Thurman chants. "And nobody came but Smarty, Smarty!"

He thinks he's being clever, but everybody has heard that old rhyme a thousand times.

"What's the dare?" I say.

"The prissy boy has to do it, too," Thurman says, and punches Virgil pretty hard on his arm.

They grin at Virgil, waiting for an answer. Virgil's face goes red. I don't think he's used to bullies. Maybe they didn't have them in Kentucky.

And now I don't know what has got into me. I stop in the middle of the road and start acting like John Wayne. "Spit it out! What's the dare?"

Everybody stops walking. We face each other.

"Climb the water tank," Thurman answers.

"That's no dare!" I holler. "I've done it lots of times. Everybody has."

"At night?"

I say nothing.

"All the way to the top?"

"And walk around the rim?"

They grin some more. Both of them have rotten teeth right in the front where you can see them plain.

I turn to look at the giant silver tank built high on the hillside. It glints in the sun, and my eyes burn. The tank holds the water supply for the coal camp, and kids like to play there. No one has ever gone more than halfway up the thousand steps. But I exaggerate. One hundred steps maybe.

"You're a skarity-cat," Ron Keith says to me.

"I am not! I'll climb your old water tank, and I'll do it at night, too."

Maybe I am addled in the head.


"When I get good and ready, that's when!"

Ron Keith winks at Thurman. "She won't do it."

"I will so do it!"

But my mouth has gone dry.

"And what about you, prissy boy?" Thurman says to Virgil.

Virgil says nothing, and we hurry away. We can hear Ron Keith and Thurman following us, hollering and laughing, calling Virgil a baby.

Then they reach their house and go in. In Jewell Valley all the houses are exactly alike—square brown wooden boxes—but we know which one is which. Thurman lives in the right side of the seventh house, and Ron Keith lives in the left side. That's how these houses are made—two families in each one, with a wall down the middle to keep you private. But let me tell you something: voices go right through that wall.

Me and Virgil walk on. I don't say anything. Mymind is back there hanging on to that conversation with Ron Keith and Thurman.

"We don't have to be scared of them," Virgil says to me.

"I'm not scared," I lie.

"I bet we can outsmart them," he says.

I don't say anything.

"In fact, I bet a monkey could outsmart those two," he goes on.

He's got me laughing now, and I am thinking how different Virgil is. He's not like anybody else I know. Something surprising comes out of his mouth every time he opens it.

We come to the eleventh house, where I live in the right side. Mr. and Mrs. Church live with their teenage son, Dwight, on the left side. Our front door is open to let in the spring, and we can hear chattering from in there.

"Is that your mommy and your sisters talking?" Virgil asks me.

"Just my sisters," I say. "Mommy's away."

"Away? Where at?"

Away is not the right word, I reckon. Mommy is not really gone, but she might as well be a millionmiles from here. She's all caught up in her own secret world inside her head.

That's too hard to explain, so I just say, "I'll be seeing you, Virgil."

"Can I walk you to school tomorrow?" he says.

"Tomorrow is Saturday."

"Oh, I mean Monday. But I'll probably see you before then."

I nod my head and wave. He waves and goes on up the road to the last house in the row.

Copyright © 2008 by Ruth White All rights reserved

Meet the Author

RUTH WHITE is the author of many acclaimed books for children, including the Newbery Honor Book Belle Prater's Boy and, most recently, Way Down Deep, a Booklist Editors' Choice. She lives in Hummelstown, Pennsylvania.

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