Robert Peck (born 1928) won critical and popular acclaim for his first novel, A Day No Pigs Would Die (1973). Critics lauded its unsentimental rendering of farm life and the often brutal realities of the natural world, and the book is now a frequently studied text in junior high school classrooms.
Peck was born in rural Vermont to Shaker farmers whose hard yet rewarding lives inspired much of his fiction. He commented: "A Day No Pigs Would Die was influenced by my father, an illiterate farmer and pigslaughterer whose earthy wisdom continues to contribute to my understanding of the natural order and the old Shaker beliefs deeply rooted in the land and its harvest." The first of his family to learn to read and write, Peck was profoundly influenced by his grade school teacher and later based the character Miss Kelly in the Soup series of novels on her. As a young man he found employment as a lumberjack, hog butcher, and paper-mill worker. He joined the United States Army infantry during World War II, serving for two years in Italy, Germany, and France. After the war he received his bachelor's degree from Rollins College and studied law at Cornell University. He later became an advertising executive, writing jingles for television commercials, but abandoned this career following the successful publication of A Day No Pigs Would Die in 1973. He now divides his time between Vermont and Florida, where he is the director of Rollins College Writers Conference.
Told in a spare yet vivid style, A Day No Pigs Would Die revolves around thirteen-year-old Rob Peck and his relationship with his austere father, a farmer and hog butcher. Rob, in return for helping a neighbor's cow give birth, receives a sow that soon becomes his beloved pet. The pig proves barren, however, and Rob must help his father slaughter it, knowing that their meager income prohibits the luxury of a useless animal. Through this experience, he comes to understand the meaning of love and the necessity of death. He is also able to face the loss of his father, who, though silent on the subject, has been slowly dying. The reaction of reviewer Christopher Lehmann-Haupt to A Day No Pigs Would Die echoed the estimation of many critics: "[This novel] is a stunning little dramatization of the brutality of life on a Vermont farm, of the necessary cruelty of nature, and of one family's attempt to transcend the hardness of life by accepting it. And while … there is no rhetoric about love—in fact nobody in A Day No Pigs Would Die ever mentions the word love, or any other emotion for that matter—love nevertheless suffuses every page."
In the Soup series of novels, Peck embellishes upon his childhood adventures with Soup, his mischievous best friend whose practical jokes often result in mayhem at such small-town functions as parades and school plays. Among the best known of these books are Soup (1974), Soup and Me (1975), Soup for President (1978), and Soup's Drum (1980). Most critics have found that while the plots of the books have grown increasingly repetitive, the stories' slapstick humor ensures their continuing appeal for young readers. A similar estimation has been accorded to Peck's series of novels revolving around the character Trig, a preteen tomboy living in 1930s Vermont whose antics often arouse the displeasure of her elders. Trig (1977), Trig Sees Red (1978), Trig Goes Ape (1980), and Trig or Treat (1982) have also been faulted for what many reviewers regarded as Peck's superficial treatment of female characters, a criticism leveled against much of his fiction.
Other novels by Peck evince his interest in colonial America and the Revolutionary War. Such novels as Fawn (1975), Rabbits and Redcoats (1976), The King's Iron (1977), and Eagle Fur (1978) feature adolescents who come of age amidst historical events such as the capture of Fort Ticonderoga by Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold. Critics have praised the sense of place, strong characterizations, and powerful scenes of these books, yet find them marred by what they perceive as Peck's puerile treatment of violence and sexual relationships. The uneven quality of these novels typifies Peck's work following A Day No Pigs Would Die. However, most critics concur with the estimation of Anne Scott MacLeod that "those who admired Pigs have often been disappointed by Peck's work since that strong beginning. Nevertheless, we look with interest at each new title by this erratic author, hoping that he will sometime match the achievement of that first powerful, moving story."
Further Reading on Robert Newton Peck
Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Volume 3, Gale, 1990.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 17, Gale, 1981.
Peck, Robert Newton, Fiction Is Folks, Writer's Digest Books, 1983.
Something about the Author Autobiography Series, Volume 1, Gale, 1986, pp. 235-247.
Twentieth-Century Children's Writers, 3rd edition, St. James Press, 1989.
Twentieth-Century Young Adult Writers, St. James Press, 1994.
Horn Book, August, 1973; October, 1973; April, 1976; December, 1976.