Richard Peck, whose hysterical historical novel, A Long Way to Chicago, was a 1999 Newbery Honor Book, does it again. This time out, Peck wins the 2001 Newbery Medal for A Year Down Yonder, the sequel to his 1999 award winner, which introduced the indomitable and fearsome figure of Grandma Dowdel as viewed through the eyes of her grandson Joey. Once again Peck takes his readers to the tiny Illinois town where this coolly conniving grandmother lives, but now we see her through the eyes of her granddaughter, 15-year-old Mary Alice.
It's 1937, and while rumor has it that the worst of the Depression is over, the "Roosevelt recession" is firmly in place. It's not bad enough that Mary Alice's dad has lost his job, or that her parents are being forced to move into a "light housekeeping" room, or that her older brother Joey has gone off to plant trees out west with the Civilian Conservation Corps. Now Mary Alice must spend a year living with her feisty and formidable grandmother in a hick town where the other kids in school think of her as the "rich Chicago girl." Grandma Dowdel is well known about town and most of the residents cower in fear at the mere sight of her. It's a fear well justified, for the woman has little tolerance for fools, a rifle she knows how to use, and a knack for cooking up outrageous schemes. At first, Mary Alice finds herself an unwitting (and often unwilling) accomplice to some of Grandma's more shocking manipulations, but as time goes by, Mary Alice discovers a knack of her own when it comes to conniving.
Peck evokes a wonderful sense of time and place, depicting the harsh realities and simple lifestyles of these Depression-era folk through catchy colloquialisms and delightful details. Grandma Dowdel is a truly unique and unforgettable character capable of generating awe as well as side-splitting laughter. The supporting cast is equally entertaining, from the bumbling antics of the local farm boys to the snooty-nosed members of the local DAR group. And as Mary Alice struggles to deal with some typical (and not so!) adolescent problems -- peer pressure, poverty, love pangs, and the indignities of using a privy -- Grandma Dowdel teaches her some of the larger lessons in life, including her own brand of justice and the real meaning of unconditional love.
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It was a September morning, hazy with late summer, and now with all the years between. Mother was seeing me off at Dearborn Station in Chicago. We'd come in a taxicab because of my trunk. But Mother would ride back home on the El. There wasn't much more than a nickel in her purse, and only a sandwich for the train in mine. My ticket had pretty well cleaned us out.
The trunk, a small one, held every stitch of clothes I had and two or three things of Mother's that fit me. "Try not to grow too fast," she murmured. "But anyway, skirts are shorter this year."
Then we couldn't look at each other. I was fifteen, and I'd been growing like a weed. My shoes from Easter gripped my feet.
A billboard across from the station read:
WASN'T THE DEPRESSION AWFUL?
This was to make us think the hard times were past. But now in 1937 a recession had brought us low again. People were beginning to call it the Roosevelt recession.
Dad lost his job, so we'd had to give up the apartment. He and Mother were moving into a "light housekeeping" room. They could get it for seven dollars a week, with kitchen privileges, but it was only big enough for the two of them.
My brother Joey -- Joe -- had been taken on by the Civilian Conservation Corps to plant trees out west. That left me, Mary Alice. I wished I was two years older and a boy. I wished I was Joey.
But I wasn't, so I had to go down to live with Grandma Dowdel, till we could get on our feet as a family again. It meant I'd have to leave my school. I'd have to enroll in the hick-town school where Grandma lived. Me, a city girl, in a town that didn't even have a picture show.
It meant I'd be living with Grandma. No telephone, of course. And the attic was spooky and stuffy, and you had to go outdoors to the privy. Nothing modern. Everything as old as Grandma. Some of it older.
Now they were calling the train, and my eyes got blurry. Always before, Joey and I had gone to Grandma's for a week in the summer. Now it was just me. And at the other end of the trip -- Grandma.
Mother gave me a quick squeeze before she let me go. And I could swear I heard her murmur, "Better you than me."
She meant Grandma.