Little Audrey, by Ruth White; Farrar, Straus and
Giroux: New York, 2008; $16
I never imagined that people could live in a coal mining camp until I read Little Audrey. Author Ruth White brings this unimaginable existence to life in her latest work. Audrey White is a sickly eleven-year-old girl growing up with her mother, three sisters and father in a Virginia camp during 1948. The cover’s photograph of a young girl in glasses and worn dress lets readers know right away that this is a tale of poverty and limitation.
The story is not one imagined by the author. Ms. White was herself a little girl living in the coal mining town of Jewell Valley, Virginia, during the late 1940s. It was there that she began creating her first stories of hardship that can be later found in works such as Sweet Creek Holler or Way Down Deep. Each novel featured a plucky young girl who would not let personal circumstances get her down. For Audrey, her only wish is “for us to live a better life than we do.”
I had the unique opportunity to ask the author about the main character. Ms. White indicated that Audrey was, in reality, her older sister. “I got into her head as best as I could and told our story from her point of view,” she explained. “Laura Ingalls Wilder was my first inspiration and most important influence so, like her, I have tried to tell my life story through a series of fiction books.”
After meeting Audrey, the reader discovers the camp’s schoolhouse and other barefoot children who live in similar desperation. But Audrey’s problems are much less the mining camp surroundings than her family and their troubled lives. Audrey’s mother cannot overcome the death of a sibling after childbirth, and her father is one of the town’s well-known drunks who works just enough to support the family and his drinking. Life does go on in other normal ways as well: cakes are baked, Shirley Temple movies are all the rage at the camp theater, there are walks along country roads with school friends, and paper cups of Coca-Cola are handed out at the company store.
This day-to-day pace carries on through most of the short novel until the sudden, tragic death of Audrey’s father in a car accident. His death is bittersweet for Audrey, her mother and sisters as it creates a new life for the family outside the camp. Audrey’s wish to live a better life has come true, but at a cost that was unimaginable early in the novel. This is where the story abruptly ends and the reader is left waiting to learn of the opportunities that will greet Audrey in the larger world. Perhaps Ms. White has left this for a future novel on her family.
Little Audrey is a touching story and there are many lessons to be learned, mainly that good things can happen during bad times. I liked this book because of Ms. White’s decision to write a personal story about her own life, regardless of its circumstances, instead of choosing to write fiction or other more popular genres. The voice that Ms. White creates for Audrey is both believable and sad, and I recommend this book to anyone who has experienced hardship, as well as those who have not.