In The Teacher’s Funeral (2004), Richard Peck gives a humorous, heartwarming look back at a changing time in America’s history. Narrator Russell Culver, a mischievous 15-year-old living in rural Indiana, reveals how his delight turned to dismay when his teacher died in August 1904. Peck draws on both his father’s childhood memories and his own recollections of visits to his grandparents’ farm as inspiration for the novel, which won a 2005 Christopher Award. Page citations in this study guide refer to the 2004 Dial Books edition.
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Russell is the first-person protagonist of The Teacher’s Funeral. Russell narrates the story as an adult looking back at his transformative 1904 school year. Russell and his family live on a farm in Sycamore Township in Parke County, Indiana. Mr. O. C. Culver, Russell’s dad, practices diversified farming, growing corn and raising cattle and hogs. The rest of Russell’s family includes his 10-year-old brother, Lloyd; his 17-year-old sister, Tansy; and their feisty Aunt Maud, who is secretly the township’s anonymous poet. Russell’s mother died giving birth to Lloyd. Tansy attends high school in town and lives at home over the summer.
As August ends and school approaches, Russell and Lloyd follow two yearly traditions: watching the Case Special train come through town displaying all the newest farm machinery and going camping along the creek. Seeing the gleaming steel threshers only adds fuel to Russel’s plan to strike out with his best friend, Charlie Parr, for the Dakotas. Russell hates school and believes it holds him back from his dream, even though he has not passed his eighth-grade graduation examination. When Russell and Lloyd learn their teacher, Miss Myrt, is dead, Russell is sure the school board will close tiny Hominy Ridge School, setting him free.
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Most of the community turns out for Miss Myrt’s funeral. Preacher Parr knows that no one will miss the teacher, so he turns his oration into a tirade against the degeneracy of modern youth. He and the older folks support the idea of corporeal punishment for lazy scholars. When Tansy sees that Miss Myrt is about to get buried with her expensive pointer, she seizes it from the dead woman’s hand. Russell thinks this is a bad omen, and it is: Tansy convinces the school board to appoint her the teacher. On the way home from the funeral, young Eugene Hammond runs the Culver’s wagon off the road by driving the first racing automobile the Culvers have seen. Tansy and Eugene feel attraction for each other.
Russell pranks Tansy on her first day of teaching by muffling the school bell so she cannot call the students inside. Unbeknownst to Russell, Charlie likes Tansy and gives her a cowbell to ring instead. Tansy’s pupils include prim Pearl Nearing, brainy Lester Kriegbaum, slow-witted Floyd, “Flopears” Lumley, six-year-old Beulah “Little Britches” Bradley, and Lloyd, Russell, and Charlie. Before school, Charlie and Russell smoke a buggy whip behind the boys’ privy, setting it on fire. Later, Tansy accuses Russell of starting the fire and trying to discredit her. Russell must make restitution by caring for the school stove and helping Tansy recruit one more student.
At the run-down Tarbox family farm, Tansy appeals to slatternly Mrs. Tarbox to send her kids to school, but Mrs. Tarbox refuses. Glenn Tarbox proves the exception to his delinquent family: He saves the life of Russell’s dog and decides to attend school.
Tansy proves to be a good teacher. She handles everything with aplomb and authority, from finding a puff adder in her desk to hauling a crotchety community matriarch out of a ditch. Tansy only loses her cool when Charlie and Glenn fight over her. During the fight, Charlie breaks his hand and Russell knows that Charlie cannot go to the Dakotas. Though crushed, Russell’s dad gently helps Russell understand the unpleasant reality of his dream. Tansy blushingly receives school donations from Eugene’s automobile company. Russell hopes that everyone will see city boy Eugene for a fool on hog butchering day, but Eugene reveals he has some country in him. Russell wishes Tansy would choose Charlie as a beau, over Eugene.
The day arrives for the school superintendent to assess Tansy’s—and her pupils’—learning. Glenn and Russell accidentally blow up the school stove, covering the room with soot. Tansy thinks they have ruined her chances, but everyone helps clean up. Tansy and the students pass their examination, and Tansy earns her provisional teaching certificate. Tansy informs Russell she became a teacher to get him through eighth grade and into higher education. She wants Russell to grow up and be a role model for Lloyd. Russell agrees.
Russell shares what eventually happens to the Hominy Ridge students. Russell marries Little Britches; Charlie becomes a preacher and marries Pearl; Lester becomes a university president; Flopears enjoys a career as a famous cartoonist; Lloyd marries a city girl; and Tansy marries Glenn. They often return to Sycamore Township to reminisce about the good old days.
By Richard Peck